Wednesday, July 30, 2008

COAL-CALLING

When I was young, our food used to be cooked on a coal-oven or chullah, which is called unoon in Bengali. It was a bucket-like contraption of iron, with a door at the bottom where the fire was to be lit. The top had an iron grill surrounded by a clay mould on which you could place the handi (pot) or chatu (pan) or kadhai (wok).

Early every morning, my mother would take the unoon out in the courtyard, clean it of the ashes of the previous day, and light a fresh set of coals for the day’s cooking. This time-consuming process involved layering the grill with shiny black pieces of coal (from the coal-shed in the garden), breaking pieces of ghuntey (dried cowdung-cakes – also stored in that same coal-shed) and fitting them at the bottom through the door and then lighting rolls of old newspaper and pushing them through the door.

Maa (mother) would bend down and blow on the fire-lit paper so that the flames blew up. The recalcitrant cowdung-cakes would gradually start to smoke and catch a dull fire, which would, in turn, pass on to the coals on top, which would begin to glow orangey-red.

The first thing cooked was, inevitably, the big aluminium kettle of tea which would wake up the rest of the family. The coal fire would last till mid-day, and a steady succession of utensils cooking various dishes for breakfast and lunch would grace the top of the unoon. The dying mid-day embers would heat the last pot of hot water (for washing the kitchen-napkins) before expiring into charred grey ashes, which would disintegrate into powdery whispers when we blew hard on them.

At sundown, under the fiery-orange bank of clouds on the western sky and the lengthening shadows of the coconut trees bordering the courtyard, accompanied by the homecoming twitter of the birds, Maa would light the coal-stove again, this time for the evening meal.

HOW WAS FOOD COOKED AT YOUR HOME BEFORE THE ADVENT OF THE CONVENIENT BUT CHARM-LESS GAS/ELECTRIC STOVE?

5 comments:

ugich konitari said...

Sucharita, we did one more thing as children. Bunch of potatoes were chucked in through the chulha door below, to bake on the side while Bhakris and stuff were made on the tawa on the chulha. I can still smell the coal baked potato and remeber its wonderful taste after we peeled off the darkened skin (which was almost cinder black). Abs wonderful. And thanks so much for bringing this up.

HOBO said...

Kerosene Stove was in my home but in my mother's in-laws house I have seen Chulha light up with wooden pieces and folded papers and then same yours story continues...
But you know wood chulha food is always better than this gas/stove.
The taste is different...
Too good...
Sometimes I dream of visiting village and staying there for 3-4 days or more and having chulha ka food...yummy !

flyingstars said...

Your posts are always so nostalgic and tack us back to the golden moments in time...its really wonderful reminiscing the days when life was far more simple...today we may live in a fast world and technology is claiming to make everything easier but the truth is actually somehow they have become more complex & we still love going back to our good old past days....we also experienced the same thing as you have narrated in the entire post till the electric ovens and gas heaters took over a decade back....lovely reading & wonderfully written post!

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

The SMELL of the smoke, ma'm. This should so have been part of your "Nose-talgia". That smell still brings back the mornings so vividly.

J.A.P.

Sucharita Sarkar said...

Thanks, everybody, for the trip back in time to share the smells and tastes of the coal-stove.