Kal chattis, urulis, eeya pathirams, irumbu kadai, vengala panai, cheena chatti, sembu sombu—sounds familiar if you are from south India, especially Tamil Nadu or Kerala. These are traditional cooking vessels made from metals and stone.
Kal chatti is made from soft soapstone and is used to make sambar, keera kootu (a dish made from greens) and perhaps fish kolambu.
In Kerala, urulis (odu vessels) bring back memories of chakka varatti (jackfruit halwa). In summer when jackfruits are available aplenty, huge quantities of chakka varatti would be made in the backyard over a logfire. It is consumed in a trice while the richness of the fruits, jaggery and ghee lingers in our memory forever. Urulis are made from bell metal, an alloy of copper and tin.
Ask any Brahmin mami and she will tell you that rasam (usually a thin tamarind-based gravy) made in an eeya pathiram tastes different. Vengalai panai (also made from a kind of bell metal) is synonymous with a Tamil bride’s first Pongal, when freshly harvested rice is offered to the sun god with turmeric and sugarcane. During this Pongal festival, I added some lemon and ginger juice to the sugarcane pieces and had my own homemade sugarcane juice.
Cheena chattis and irumbu kadais are frying pans or woks made from iron. Do you wonder why our grandmothers did not take iron supplements? Traces of iron from the food cooked in these vessels helped to maintain healthy haemoglobin levels in blood.
The copper vessel called the sombu is what one drank water from. And as if to remind us of this, most temples in south India offer the consecrated water with tulsi from a copper vessel.
I believe in conspiracy theories and feel that many of our traditional practices, as well as many of the cooking vessels we used to prepare food in were all given a bad name so that we would shift to non-stick pans and other vessels made of different materials. I cannot think of anything more hazardous to our health than cooking in chemical coated vessels—teflon, silicon or otherwise.
For example, let’s consider the case of eeya pathiram which was traditionally used to make rasam. Canards are being spread that the vessel is made of lead. It is not. There are two types of eeyam—one is velleeyam or tin and the other is kareeyam or lead. Eeya pathirams are made of tin. In Aurveda, tin (vangam) or tin ash (vanga bhasmam) is used to treat diabetes and many conditions of the urinogenital tract. Simply having rasam made in an eeya pathiram helps you to prevent diabetes. A paper published in an international research journal details how vanga bhasmam is used in the treatment of non-healing wounds, premature ejaculation, for semen augmentation, cough, cold, bronchitis and asthma. Vanga bhasmam balances kapha. Since diabetes is said to be a disease of vitiated kapha, one can see why vanga bhasmam is used in the treatment of diabetes.
I find that many of my young friends have set on a search of the family heirlooms—vengala panai, irumbu kadai and eeya pathiram. They have been sold or given away and replaced with the toxic non-stick cookware. And we wonder why the number of people suffering from cancer is on the rise. In Ayurveda and Siddha, the efficacy of the centuries old vanga bhasmam in treating diabetes has been elaborated. While one needs to consult a vaidyar before starting treatment with vanga bhasmam, one could have been ingesting trace amounts of the metal through our everyday food.
Eeya pathirams are beautiful silvery vessels made in pretty shapes. Available abundantly, for some reason in Kumbakonam (Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu) and Chennai, it is slowly being disused because of the confusion between lead and tin. On the other hand, I know of feisty old ladies who tell me that they are hale and healthy and have been using only traditional cooking vessels.
The writer is retired Additional Chief Secretary, Government of Tamil Nadu. She can be reached at Sheelarani.arogyamantra@gmail. com.
Earlier articles can be accessed at www.arogyamantra.blogspot.com