Year-End Special: Back to the future
Three traditional culinary implements make a return to modern kitchens
The past is riddled with inspiration. One of the defining factors of progressive Indian cuisine is a constant effort to revive time-honoured culinary practices—lost recipes, techniques and even kitchen apparatuses that might seem like anachronisms in today’s age—and reimagine them in a new culinary language. Here are three age-old appliances and utensils that are making a comeback to gourmet kitchens and would be a worthy addition to yours.
Once indispensible to Indian kitchens, the sil batta—a rustic apparatus comprising a heavy, flat slab of grinding stone and a smaller stone muller—can no longer be found in most urban kitchens. But old-timers insist spices ground fresh on a sil batta release the best flavours. And they aren’t wrong. The sil batta, once dismissed as commercially impractical, seems to be sneaking back into modern kitchens.
At Arth, which opened its doors in Mumbai earlier this year, the sil batta is crucial to executive chef Amninder Sandhu’s Sil Batta Khatai Kabab, made with mutton or chicken. Sandhu is best known for her commitment to food revivalism, and plans to rediscover age-old culinary techniques and lesser-known ingredients from around the country and give them a modern metamorphosis. The sil batta, with its millennia-long culinary history, is an obvious addition to her pantry. “The sil batta generates little heat during the grinding process, and helps keep the essential oils, colour, etc., intact," says Sandhu. For her Sil Batta Khatai Kabab, the meat is ground painstakingly, along with almonds, poppy seeds, dried mango chips, chana dal (Bengal gram) and hung curd, on a sil batta, shaped into tikkis and shallow-fried. “Grinding the meat on a sil batta gives it a grainy texture crucial to its crisp crust and soft centre."
Another old-world kitchen utensil is the lagan—a wide, shallow copper utensil, heavy-bottomed and thick-walled. A must-have in the kitchens of Lucknavi khansamas, where it would traditionally be used to make rich kormas and delicate qaliyas, the lagan is just as relevant to a modern kitchen. “It is an extremely versatile utensil, best equipped to handle large cuts of meats," says celebrity chef Aditya Bal, who uses the lagan extensively to make his tawa fries and stir-fries. “The shape of a lagan ensures that the heat is evenly distributed. Sealed with dough, the lagan could be transformed into an oven-like apparatus, apt for slow-cooking of all kinds, and is a go-to utensil if you want to roast a leg of lamb or a whole chicken in your kitchen," he says. Traditionally used to make gravies, the lagan could work just as well for making European-style pot-roasts or meats.
Chitoi Pithe Chhach
Come winters, many a Bengali kitchen would drum up a mind-boggling variety of pithe—typically sweet or savoury rice cakes, often stuffed, steamed, fried, or stewed in sweetened milk. One such pithe is the chitoi pithe—a simple, fluffy rice pancake, usually served with golden, liquid jaggery and a sprinkle of fresh grated coconut, or savoury curries and piquant chutneys. Traditionally, the chitoi pithe would be made in a chhach, or clay (or iron) moulds with rounded cup-like depressions, and a lid. Nowadays, it is difficult to spot one of these in a regular Bengali kitchen.
But it turns out these moulds have found their way into gourmet kitchens. At chef Sabyasachi Gorai’s Lavaash By Saby in Delhi, an Armenian-style ravioli called manti is baked and served in chitoi pithe moulds picked up from the streets of Kolkata. “The sauce is first ladled into the depressions, and then the square ravioli, stuffed with minced meat, mushrooms or a pumpkin and spinach filling, is placed on them, topped off with Kalimpong cheese and baked," says head chef Megha Kohli. “The clay mould imparts a wonderful earthy note to the dish and I would love to use them to bake meatballs or make Arabic kibbeh," says Kohli.