Monday, September 16, 2013

Traditional Kitchen Style

Posting today, a  feature about traditional kitchens from around India appeared in the  Sep 23 , 20113 issue of India Today Home.

At the heart of every Indian house lies its kitchen. Although the traditional Indian hearth is a far cry from the gleaming counter tops of its city counterpart, it is not hard to find homes that still retain their age-old sanctums, with due modifications that occur over time.

The traditional kitchen evokes strong images – that of basic, utilitarian spaces, wood fired stoves and ovens, gleaming brass or stainless steel storage boxes, ceramic containers used to store pickles and preserves, charred patina of thick terracotta, meticulously scrubbed brass and steel pots.
Depending on the region the kitchen, there is also the odd implement and tool used for specific purposes of steaming, molding, grating and cutting etc.

Even as one routinely chances upon quirky coconut graters from down south and brass moulds to set kulfi in from the north in flea markets of Mumbai or Delhi, and ubiquitous gas cylinders and shiny stoves come to replace the traditional chullha, one questions the need to reminisce and observe age old practices. Is it an exercise merely driven by nostalgia? Or is there more to the traditional kitchen, the recipes it gives birth to and the traditions it represents?

 A close look into the mores that thrive in the Indian kitchen tells how this humble space is a receptacle of culture and a way of life that shapes an entire civilization.

The smell of wood smoke is enough to trigger journeys back into time and into spaces that one way or the other form a strong part of childhood memories for many. May be from a long lost a home back in a village, or that of an odd relative or friend that one visited or that of a grandparent.

 Usually when one thinks back to a home from the past, it is not surprising that most stories and associations one has are from long lost kitchens.  This more than any other part of the home brims with sights sounds and smells of all kind. However prosaic the range of activities that surround such a space, it seems to feed a lifetime  of memories and imagination of entire civilisations.

A guests cup of Khante, or salt butter tea always brims on a visit to a Ladakhi home

Where the modern kitchen is best suited to meet the needs of increasingly convenience driven households, the traditional kitchen addresses more than just functionality.  It is a sacred space, treated as such, perpetuating tradition and lessons that speak of a way of life.

Probably why, owners of a Raibnder home in Goa refused to cut the coconut trees that came in the way of their home while it was being constructed. So, very creatively two robust coconut trees serve as a pillar around which the kitchen is constructed.  “Trees are sacred, we did not want to cut those on the plot while making room for the house,’’ I was told by the owners. Speaks volumes about the sensitivity to the natural environment. A lot of the practices that surround old kitchens are considered sacred almost mystical than the purely scientific or functional. Not surprisingly the sight is unlike anything that a urban household can ever conceive of as possible.

With time, much has changed in rural as well as semi-urban and urban kitchens across the country. The tradition of cooking on a newly raised platform in a Rajashtani Haveli situated in the old quarter of Jaipur for example.  ``We used to have a large kitchen where the cooking was done on a hand made chullha’’, explains Aarti Devi, the matriarch of the family. However since the fragmentation of the joint family, the kitchen was reorganized into a much smaller corner she said. Their new kitchen- less than five years old- is more efficient in meeting the needs of their smaller household, yet retaining the essential character of the traditional haveli it finds a place of pride within.

For most part though kitchens like homes everywhere in traditional societies straddle the past and present comfortably, evolving with time, and retaining what remains functional and relevant from the past.   Thick Tibetan carpets cover the wooden floor of a traditional Ladhaki kitchen in Hunder in the Nubra Valley.  `` We still use traditional implements handed down to us by our parents since they suit our needs so well ‘’ says home-owner Tashi Dorjey, speaking off the `Lungto’ a traditional Stone urn that is used to cook rice in. The dense walls of the vessel keeps its contents warm for a long time even in below freezing conditions.

Perhaps revisiting a traditional kitchen is just more than an exercise in nostalgia then.  For this space with its symbols and rituals, above all spaces in the domestic domain not only upholds a way of life but also shapes the mind and body of entire civilizations. 

A peek into kitchen's around Goa.


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