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?