Did you know that the only cooking vessel that safeguards all the micronutrients in your food even after it is cooked for long hours is the humble earthen pot. An experiment conducted in a government laboratory in India revealed that lentil (dal in Hindi) cooked in a clay pot survived a 36-hour non air-conditioned train journey without spoiling and with 100% of the micronutrients intact.
The science behind cooking in clay pots
Although the earthen pot has a long history in India, it is used for cooking in South Asia, some parts of South East Asia and also Africa. In India, it has also been accorded religious sanctity.
In the temple town of Puri in east India, the ‘dal-chawal’ (lentil and rice) made as an offering to the Gods is prepared only in earthen pots or handis. The priests have a simple explanation: “The earth is pure, and only pure things can be offered to God.” But this simple statement is loaded with scientific reasoning. It has been scientifically proven that the remains of a human body (as it goes back to about 20 gms of dust) contain 18 micro-nutrients including calcium, phosphorous, zinc, sulphur and iron. These are the very micro-nutrients found in the soil used to make clay pots. So when the priests say, “Only pure things can be offered to God”, it is a perfectly rational, even scientific!
Pressure cooker does not cook, it only breaks the lentil down
The lab result of the same lentil cooked in a pressure cooker revealed that only 13 per cent of the micro-nutrients survived while the rest were killed. Scientists at the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research in New Delhi explained, “The lentil in the pressure cooker did not actually end up being cooked. In reality, the molecules simply split up due to the pressure in the vessel, causing the lentil to break down quickly and become soft enough to be eaten.”
What ‘cooking’ means according to Ayurveda
According to Ayurveda, the ancient Indian form of medicine, to ‘cook’ is to treat food to make it edible (that which cannot be consumed raw) while preserving all the micronutrients and tastefulness. This only corroborates how this ancient Indian medical practice was developed along scientific reasoning.
Cooking in earthen pots linked with longevity
One of the secrets behind the longevity of the older generation is eating food ‘cooked in purest form’, because when the body is able to imbibe all micro-nutrients intended for it by nature, it does not need other help to stay healthy. Further, clay is alkaline in nature which helps to neutralise the pH balance of the food as it comes in contact with the acid present in the food. Foods that are naturally acidic will attain a natural sweetness if cooked in earthen pots. eating food cooked in clay pots will provide significant relief from acidity problems.
Earthen pots and woks were commonly used in Indian homes up to 30 or 40 years ago. In fact these are still used in some rural areas where villagers cook their food on slow fire using small pieces of wood and twigs. Practically every Indian family has their stories of how their grandparents never had dental or eyesight problems; no blood pressure woes, diabetes or even knee pain. They remained physically active until the end of their lives doing household chores such as hand washing their own clothes. A practicing homeopathic doctor who went from village to village to research more about the benefits of cooking in earthen pots, says his grandmother died of old age at 94, with all her teeth intact. He recalls that she used earthen vessels for everything — be it storing drinking water, cooking rice and lentils or boiling milk. They had no refrigerators in the village but all the cooked food would last a long time in the earthen pots and handis.
The ancient wisdom of potters
India is rich in natural minerals and bauxite is one of them. The southern states of the country — Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu — are abundant in bauxite. This resource has been available for a very long while and could have been exploited to make aluminium and aluminium cooking utensils there from. But there was no need, since for thousands of years, there has been an entire community of potters, dedicated to fashioning every manner of earthen cookware using age-old yet scientific methods (more on this later).
I digress here to tell you that hundreds of years ago, these very earthen cookware ‘scientists’, who with their ancient knowledge safeguarded the health of the people for ages, were relegated to being of low caste in India’s caste and class ridden society, perhaps because they were men who worked with their bare hands at the humble soil. It is another matter that today those who produce modern pots, pans and pressure cookers, compromising the health of millions, are the affluent lot.
We live in times when a multitude of health problems stem from the accumulation of metal ions in our bodies through the food we consume. Unfortunately, cookware make from aluminium (and similar metals) is commonly used. Such metals react with the food as it is cooked under high temperature causing metal ions to mix with the food, disrupting the metabolic functioning of human body and leading to several diseases. In contrast, clay cookware is inert by nature and does not react negatively with the food in any manner.
Earthen pots are eco friendly
Did you know that there is a proper selection process for the type of soil to be used to make different kinds of earthen vessels – such as pots and woks for cooking lentils and vegetables, matkas and surahis for storing water and a range to utensils to eat and drink from – for example, a ‘kulhar’ (cup) for tea. The knowledge required for identifying the right kind of soil for a particular vessel has been passed through the successive generations of potters. For example, it takes expertise to know that soil which is rich in calcium and magnesium may be good for making a pot but perhaps not appropriate for a kulhar.
The best part is that these pots are bio-degradable. Unlike modern utensils which burn a hole in the pocket, earthen pots are very cheap. Once they outlive their utility, they can be crushed to go back into the earth from which they came and from this earth thousands of more pots can be made. Can one say this about a modern day kitchen vessel?
More cooking time a bother?
A standard argument against earthen pots is that food takes longer to cook. That is true. But it is also true that slow-cooked food is by far healthier and tastier. The surface of an earthen pot is porous due to which moisture and heat are able to circulate easily and the food cooks delicately and evenly.
In some coastal areas of India, even fish and mutton are cooked on slow fire in earthen pots. Needless to say, the taste is sumptuous. In fact some upscale restaurants serve biryani (spiced and flavoured rice) oven-cooked in clay handis, sold at a premium price tag!
Apart from clay, there are alloys such as brass that safeguard the micro-nutrients present in food while cooking. Only about 3 per cent of the micro-nutrients are destroyed if lentil is cooked in a brass vessel. Alternatively, if it is cooked in a pressure cooker, only 3 per cent of the micro nutrients will remain!
Slow down to earthen pot cooking
As mentioned above, clay cooking utensils have the unique quality of locking in all the steam and vapour that otherwise evaporates during cooking. Apart from helping to retain all the nutrients in the food, this locking in of steam and vapor, ensures that the food is cooked in its own oils and liquids, reducing the need for external cooking oil and water.
It is important to reiterate that clay pot cooking should be done at low temperatures as this helps the food to cook evenly and encourages the spices to travel deeper into the food making it extremely flavoursome. Doing this also reduces the amount salt required making it ideal for those needing a low sodium diet.
Increasing health-related problems resulting from faulty lifestyle is compelling people to fall back on traditional methods of cooking and using earthen pots is one of them. Clay utensils are slowly making a comeback into modern homes – hopefully this will be a lasting change and not a short-lived slowdown fad.
Earthen kitchenware sold by potters on the roadside is far cheaper than that sold in upscale markets. It is not unusual to spot luxury cars pulling over along footpaths to buy these mud pots. ‘Matka’, the earthen pot meant to keep water cool occupies the pride of place in many kitchens perched alongside a sophisticated water purifier.
How to select the right clay cooking pot
Make sure the clay pots you buy for cooking are not glazed from the inside. That would defeat the ‘healthy eating’ purpose entirely because the smooth glaze comes from a coating of lead and cadmium which makes the cookware look aesthetically appealing. But both lead and cadmium are poisonous chemicals which would leech into the food during the process of cooking. As you continue to eat food cooked in glazed pots day after day, you will simply be subjecting yourself to slow poisoning over time. Cook in raw-finished, unglazed pots only.
Prepare clay pot for first use
When you get a new (unglazed) clay cooking pot home, the first thing to do is to immerse it overnight in a tub of water. Next, empty out the pot and turn it upside down and allow it to dry out completely. Then you must season the cooking pot by rubbing cooking oil into the surface — inside and outside. Then fill the pot with water — about three quarters full — and put it on the stove or into the oven (at 300 degrees F) for 2 hours. This process of seasoning will enhance the durability of the clay pot and make it crack resistant.
Tips for using and handling clay cookware
- Before you start to cook, fill the clay pot with water and let it stand for 20 minutes. Due to the porous nature of an earthen pot, it will soak up the moisture. (Discard the water after 20 minutes.) Then as you start the cooking process and the pot begins to heat up, it will release steam into the pot which will cook the food gently and not allow it to dry out. Further, the natural juices and nutrients will be retained in the food.
- Since a clay pot retains heat, it will continue to cook and simmer cook even after it has been removed from the heat. Remember to factor this into your cooking time.
- When you remove the pot from the flame or from the oven, remember not to place it on a cold surface. Doing so may cause the clay pot to crack. Place it on folded cloth or on a wooden or cane coaster.
- Do not place the pot in a preheated oven. It will most certainly crack.
- Do not put a hot (or even warm) clay pot to wash. Subjecting it to any sudden temperature difference may result in cracking.
- Do not use regular detergents to clean your clay cooking pot. Due to the porous nature of a clay pot, it will absorb the chemicals in the cleaning agents and then release them into the food when you cook next.
- Wash your clay pot in warm water, using a brush if required. You may use baking soda or salt (both are non-toxic) to scrub away food stuck on the sides. Use a non-metallic scouring pad. To deep clean or to remove stubborn stuck-on food you may soak the pot overnight in water mixed with baking soda. The water should be hot when you first pour it in.
- After cleaning, make sure the pot is completely dry before you store it away. Clay pots should be stored without lids so that air is able to circulate which is important to prevent molding.