Birbal’s khichdi did take an eon to cook, but for sure, it was the tastiest one in town!
Sitting at the dingiest corner of old Lucknow, watching the dum biryani’s eternal rendezvous with a 100 year old hearth chanced me a perfect analogy of the popular Akbar-Birbal tale. Intrigued to the extent that my stomach forgot it needed fuel, I set forth to decipher what was taking a simple mixture of rice and meat, ages to turn into a cuisine. An eighty two year old chef, a ‘khansama’ as they call him, working there for the longest possible part of his life that his 80+ old memory could recall, replied to my curious inquiry very matter-of-factly in his impeccable syrupy urdu (which I am translating for obvious reasons!), “this dum (steam cooking) takes time to happen. You see that handi (pot)? It first tastes the ingredients, measures the moisture, weighs the nutrition and then uses all this information to cook for you. All this takes time. Sit at ease; Have a cutting chai till your biryani gets ready.” So it was not the flame, it was indeed the pot that tendered me the yummiest biryani of my life!
What takes exactly 2 whistles to cook in my pressure cooker, took half a day to emerge from the earthen pot. But what we have been scraping out of the cooker is nowhere even close to what alighted on our plates from the handi! That day, I leanrt two things; 1. nobody can make better biryani than the 82 year old khansama, and 2. all that cooks, is not vessel! My respect for earthen pots has escalated manifold... Not just for the love of biryani but for the amazing benefits of cooking it hoists.
Slow and steady wins the race
This old axiom befits clay vessel-cooking. It is slow, and steady too. My first hands-on with a clay pot was although not as grueling as I thought it to be, nevertheless a firm test of patience. From the time I put it on the stove (unfortunately I could not get a wooden hearth for action) till I served the biryani for lunch, I could have finished 4 laps of triathlon!
Every conducting material carries thermal inertia: ‘the degree of slowness with which the temperature of a body approaches that of its surroundings’. Metals have it very low while clay pots have it high. Unlike metals, which are super-quick in conducting heat, earthen-wares take their own sweet time. They take up heat slowly and distribute it uniformly throughout the vessel, trickling across every fleck of the ingredients. Slow heat dispersion cooks food slowly, yet steadily and uniformly making sure no part of your cuisine is under-cooked or over-cooked.
What goes in, stays in
The 2 most vital parts of any food commodity are its 1. nutrient content, and 2. moisture content. Earthen or clay vessels are extremely porous in nature; and porosity goes complementary to circulation. Due to their high permeability quotient, the cooking mechanism is propagative and distributive. Heat and moisture inside stays circulated and evenly distributed to every ingredient. It is not surprising that preparations from a clay vessel are very supple and ductile, to say the least. Slow and consistent heat keeps the food, especially meat and fibrous foods, tender and soft, at the same time retaining their nutrition and quality intact. Try out a biryani or a pulao (for the veggies pinching their eyebrows on this biryani-dominated blog!) out of a clay pot and may be another from your nonstick; the remarkable difference in taste, aroma and succulence cannot go unnoticed!
The ultimate acid test
Not always do diamonds cut diamonds; we need a saw at times. Clay due to its alkaline nature, is the best material to combat highly acidic foods. The acidity of meals from clay vessels is easily kneaded while cooking and the food stays soft on our digestive system.
Better than butter
Again, porosity of clay locks moisture and grease inside till the end. It keeps oil well spun with the food and prevents it from evaporating. Which means, the need to addition of any extra oil or butter is slashed . You will be surprised to see your oil rations plummeting in a few weeks with clay vessels at your service!
Burnign the midnight oil
Clay pots work harder and longer than anyone else. But rarely will you be served with a burnt curry! Our biggest worry while cooking is exactly this; a moment away from sight, the food in even our best non-stick pans burn out in anger! But clay promises to never let you down. Clay particles absorb heat to bind to each other but do not let any organic material to stick. Simultaneously, circulating heat waves through the pores prevent overheating of surface and prevent charring. Like the proverbial candle, being clay isn’t easy too!
Quality isn’t expensive; it is priceless.
Buying my first clay pot after the inspirational encounter with mr.khansama was an experience; and shocking too. “Something that can bring out the best a biryani could ever be, cannot be so inexpensive!” I chuckled to myself as the polite potter packed my pot carefully in newspaper.
Earthen-wares are the easiest to manufacture because they do not need any expensive establishments or labour. Potters are everywhere and so are their skills. Usually clay vessels and containers are found at any potter’s hub and can even be made-to-order according to your specifications. They are economical and a break now and then does not tweak your budget much. Yes, we need to follow a bit of procedure to temper a clay pot before use but once done, you have a friend for life!
Earthen for our Earth
Needless to say, nothing can be greener than clay! It is ubiquitous, natural, environment friendly and absolutely recyclable. Teflon coatings and even aluminum for that matter are extremely harsh for not just our surroundings but our tummies too.
What goes around, comes around
We are not just surrounded by the 5 elements, but we are the five elements. Whether it is food cooked in an earthen vessel or water stored in one, our internal is constantly co-existing with the external, in the most utilitarian way. You cannot go wrong choosing the naturals because they are sustainable, healthy and consistent. When it comes to our food, it is not just what we eat but how it is cooked, that affects our system. Clay is one of the most versatile materials to mould into and the friendliest one to practically all kinds of food we eat.
We have an entire street named after the potter’s community here in Bangalore. Yet I ended up at a local fair to pick up my first clay pot, blame it on my poor sense of nativity! Approach your local potters to pick your pieces. It is always a better idea to help artists directly than through retailers. Glazed or unglazed, you are sure to get your desirable vessels and a big smile to thank you for your helping hand!
I could almost taste birbal’s khichdi in my mind after my first morsel of biryani from the clay pot I picked. While my seventh standard moral science period imparted profound moral injunctions from Akbar-Birbal stories, this experience taught me an entirely different lesson from Birbal's khichdi escapade:
Give back to the planet what it gives you, and more than often, cooks for you!
Human race has invested over half a decade on ergonomics and spends on an average, 72 hours selecting a chair to perch on. But did we know that humans in the first place were not designed and conditioned to sit on chairs?
This may sound like someone just pulled a chair from right under your buttocks as you were about to sit! Arching this analogy into reality, if this makes you land hard on your hips and you are to continue sitting on the floor with your legs crossed, would you survive for 1 hour without shifting your legs twenty times, cringing and cursing?
Cross-legged pose or the Sukhasana: the function is in the name! the easiest of all postures, sitting in which should give us a relaxed, calm and tempered feel. But surprisingly, 6 out of every 10 people we know around find it extremely arduous to sit cross-legged for a prolonged period and atleast 2 of them cannot sit in this posture at all!
Homo sapiens are born basic. Like any other animal, our bodies and instinctive traits are designed to sync with nature. To be able to sit cross legged comfortably, a) our pelvic muscles should be flexible and b) without exceptions, our spine should always be kept erect. Spine functions primarily to give an erect stable posture to the body and in partnership with our hips and legs, it braces our centre of gravity. And Sukhasana is the 2nd most gravitationally compliant asana, to say the least. (shavasana stays undefeated on the first place!)
The Seat of Wellness...
The 'Sukh' of Digestive wellness
One aspect, and largely the most important one, nobody cares for while eating is the focus and attention we give to the food on our plate. We are either engrossed in watching television or plain chit-chatting with family and friends while the hands mechanically thrust food down our alimentary canal . Little do we know that the way we focus on food at hand determines how it will be digested, metabolized, absorbed and excreted. Sitting on ground helps us focus more on the morsels and allows us to relish our food slowly. It is impossible to eat too fast sitting in this position. Try it to believe it! Additionally, the back and forth movement of your body activates abdominal muscles as you eat and signals the brain to induce secretion of digestive enzymes/juices. And all these processes together make you feel full quicker. Anybody habitual to this way of eating will have rarely overeaten or complained of gassy bloating and acid reflux!
The 'Sukh' of Postural wellness
Your spine. Again. Water cannot flow through a bent pipeline. So can’t your energy, through a flexed curled spine! Sukhasana is synonymous to good posture. You have to put it in practice to achieve an appropriate posture and after a while, sitting with an erect spine becomes as involuntary as breathing.
The 'Sukh' of Skeletomuscular wellness
Remember our grannies from the time when there were grinding slabstones and no dining tables? There were no gyms either. And they were fit as fiddle. Ever wondered why? Synced with nature, their bodies were self-reliant, and joints in full range of motion through the day. The problems start when we underuse our joints and make them rust. Cross-legged posture is perfect to keep the hip flexors moving and agile. The joints stay well lubricated and are less susceptible to degenerative diseases striking unwantedly early in life!
The 'Sukh' of Circulatory wellness
Resources. Supplies. Our body needs a lot of it in the form of food, and energy to metabolize that food adequately and ultimately provide us with energy. The 100,000km long chain of blood vessels are our body’s transport vehicles. And like any other system in the body, our digestive system needs energy to function. Sitting cross-legged activates our circulatory system to work harder, pumping in more blood to aid faster digestion.
The 'Sukh' of weight control
The very activity of sitting up and down is extremely beneficial for keeping your joints in full range of motion, muscles moving and fat getting burnt. Besides, the back and forth movement while eating also keeps your abdominal muscles in constant ambulation. Accompanying these dynamics, is our digestive system steadfast in boosting our metabolism. With an active body and a blessed metabolism at our service, what more can we ask for!
The 'Sukh' of Humility
We are born of nature. The most fundamental aspect of human life is its connect to the 5 elements of nature from the time it is born from water to the time it perishes into either the earth, fire or air. Sitting on the ground does exactly this. It makes our body and mind attuned with the earth below, the sky above and all the elements in between. Humility is nothing else but absolute acceptance of the spirit that it primarily belongs to nature and that the only way to a holistic attunement is submitting to it. Now we know, why eating, praying and spiritual practices have always been recommended sitting in Sukhasana (and very often vajrasana for the same reasons). Basic.
The 'Sukh' of longevity
Just the way a collective conscience of humans helps build better societies, the collective conscience of all the benefits of sukhasana mentioned above converge into comprehensive wellbeing and vivacity. A capable body and a dynamic mind directly influences longevity. So start sitting down to stay up for a long life!
Sitting cross-legged on the ground for activities like eating, household chores and even chat sessions with family and friends has been a way of life for ages and still prevails in many cultures and families. It is almost in our genes! So why are we not doing it more often?
There are many motivated ones out in the fields; the regular yoga doers, health conscious, sporty and active ones who still find it difficult to experience the pleasure of the sukh-asana. Don’t chase unrealistic goals. You cannot achieve a padmasana without being able to sit in sukhasana comfortably. Go slow and with the flow. Keep, this will tweak the difficulty level to the next notch by switching to vajrasana. And as you feel thunderbolt getting easier on your body, slide down to virasana, the hero pose. Padmasana stands on the highest pedestral. If you are able to execute these 4, you surely have a pelvic flexibility and agility to envy!
The little pleasures of sitting cross-legged are achieved with really big muscle! Concentrate on building upon their strength and agility. And once you are able to sit in sukhasana comfortably, just keep sitting! Try to work around stationary activites, eat, chat or relax sitting in this position or in thunderbolt consistently to reap the maximum benefits.
For, lies herein the wisdom: As you Sit, so you Rip!