India Chronicles | Mud, wood, fire … food
Every evening, Savita Yadav religiously bathes, gets ready, goes into the corner of her home with a high zinc roof, the cemented courtyard lined with the pots of holy basil plants, pours ghee (clarified butter) on to the stack of fuel in a mud stove, strikes a match, waits for the fuel to burn, and puts an earthen 'tawa' (Indian flat skillet) on top.
The chulha (pronounced choo as in shoe, la as in large), a traditional Indian cooking stove, has been an integral part of Indian households for centuries, a rapidly diminishing phenomenon taken over by the gas stove and the more 'funky' microwave.
"I started cooking on the chulha when I was seven years old," said Yadav as she meticulously divided the kneaded dough, neatly packed in a brass vessel, and blew air from a hollow metal tube to fan the fire.
Like the era of its inception, cooking in this earthen stove is a gingerly paced process, the farm to the plate phenomenon in all its entirety.
"I learnt the skills from my grandmother and my mother," she said. "I used to initially help them prepare the chulha after I came back from school, and then gradually learnt cook on it."
Prepping this U-shaped mud is a multi-pronged process, which requires both patience and the knowledge of the key ingredients, their consistency and their applications.
The stove is made from clay, usually yellow in colour, which has the right viscosity when mixed with water, this mixture is applied on a brick structure that is created to make the stove.
After plastering the bricks with clay, another layer of clay and cow dung is applied. "This mixture gives it strength and also helps to prevent cracking of the stove when the mixture dries," Yadav informed.
The thickness of the walls, she said, varies and has no particular dimensions, though the walls have to be thick enough to retain the heat consistently. The fuel (wood, sticks, cow-dung patties, straw, newspaper etc.) is fed from the front of the chuhla to create a fire and the flame fanned by blowing in it with a hollow pipe. Once the cooking is complete, the ashes and the unburnt or semi burnt fuel is removed to be used later.
Cooking on the chulha is a skillset as one has to sit on the floor, continuously monitor the fuel and the flames, and control the heat.
"The chulha has to be coated once every five or six days with the clay and cow-dung mixture and left to dry during the day," Yadav said. "This would prevent any cracks from forming and keeps the chuhla's good shape."
As meticulous, slow-paced and oft back-breaking as the process is, the cooking over slow fire, which bakes and cooks the food in their juices, brings out their natural taste.
Making rotis, the North Indian staple, on this clay stove is a process by itself, the whole wheat flour is hand kneaded to make a dough, which is divided into equal parts and then rolled over a round marble block with a wooden rolling pin, which is slapped over the earthen skillet.
"The clay skillet is best suited as it does not become very hot, as compared to the iron skillet and distributes the heat evenly," she said.
The rotis, all hand done, cooked over slow fire, come out a fluffy, warm steamy bready delight, served over dollop of freshly made white butter and a choice of curried vegetables and pickles - bliss to the senses.
For Yadav, keeping a dying Indian tradition alive, is a matter of pride and joy. "The taste that you get from cooking here (on the chuhla), cannot be replicated with cooking on gas stove," she said. For the last two decades, she has mastered this craft, and hopes one day her daughter will learn this tradition too ... and that the flames from this stove will keep feeding generations to come.