Here, customers get food cooked in clay vessels

The food cooked In clay vessels retains flavour for a long time.

Here, customers  get food cooked in clay vessels

A 70-year-old Sagunthala quietly cleans clay utensils of various sizes near Karur-Madurai highway at Malaikovilur village in Tamil Nadu.

If someone thinks it is for sale, he/she is wrong. Behind her, one can see a thatched hut, which is actually a hotel.

Located near the historic town of Karur town, known for its rich and varied cultural heritage in central Tamil Nadu, a small-time hotel “Manpaanai Samiyal Unavagam” (clay pot cooking restaurant)  is showing the way for healthy cooking -- using utensils made of clay.

Inside the hotel, everything from cooking vessels to plates, spoons and drinking mug is made of clay, reminding one of early civilisations in India and China.

There is no trace of plastic, which is now found everywhere.

It is claimed that some unique properties of clay result in several unexpected benefits in the kitchen.

Clay pots churn out more juicy and flavoured meat and poultry as the porus material used for its making slowly releases steam from its pores during the cooking process, says E Selvamani, wife of the hotel owner.

Pots are special as they are alkaline in nature.

This helps in retaining the flavour of the food for a longer duration of time without adding extra fat or liquids. Along with the flavour, essential nutrients and vitamins remain in tact in the food, she claimed.

“It’s a distinctive style of dish, defined by its temperature,” explains Selvamani. “Some clay pot dishes are served over fire and you will find the flavour changes gradually according to the heating time,” she adds.

Describing the subtle relationship

between food and pot, she claimed pot made of pure clay releases a distinctive scent during the heating process. Food inside the pot absorbs this.

“Even we serve food only in clay plates and drinking water in small glasses. Initi­ally, most customers, especially children are reluctant to eat.

We need to explain to them the benefits of clay usage,” V Eashwaramurthy, who maintains the hotel, said. “Still, some people prefer banana leaves instead of clay plates.”

The idea to cook in clay pots came from Eashwaramurthy’s grandmother. “We have more than 500 clay utensils of every size in our kitchen. We buy them in local market, specially designed for us,” he said. 

“I learnt cooking from my granny at the age of 19. Though my parents were not
interested in making me a chef, I was able to convince them,” he said.

The hotel serves only lunch and has fixed hours. Even the menu is very limited and it includes rice, sambar, rasam, butter milk and five varieties of curry for vegetarians while chicken curry, chicken biriyani with hot curry items and egg varieties for non-vegetarians.

There is no fan or air-cooler but diners can enjoy the natural breeze while eating.
 
Selvamani says: “Our guests, especially youngsters, are well aware of the environmental impact. But more importantly they are also keen to return to a healthier and simple lifestyle in terms of their food choices. Our guests want organic food to be served.”

Giving his version, chef S P Sultan

Mohideen said they use only organic food items.For cooking non-vegetarian food, hotel uses separate pots.

”We don’t even mix plates. There is a separate set of utensils for vegetarians,” Mohideen said.

The surroundings of the 24-seat hotel gives unique choice for its custo­mers.

“Non-vegetarians can choose their own chicken and eggs, which are available near the hotel. We cook that,” P Sanka­ran, who maintains the hotel poultry, said.  

The hotel has factored in the requirement of vegetarians also. They can choose vegetables from a nearby garden.

“However, most of them do not prefer choosing since it consumes a lot of time. Very few who are adventurous do that,” Sankaran said.

Interestingly, chefs do not use mixer or grinder for making ingredients, which, they say, adds flavour to the food. “We pound or grind ingredients, including preparation of masalas, manually,” Sankaran pointed out.

They use only firewood and cow-dung and the ash is used to manure the garden. There are seven employees and they stay together.

They get up at 5 am and start preparations.

They also maintain the garden.

“We tried out chicken clay pot meals in this restaurant and found it to be tastier. Besides, this type of cooking is not practical at home now. It needs a lot of pati­e­n­ce,” C Kumaravel, a traveller, said.

While serving food, hotel staff inquires with customers as to whether they are enjoying their meals. They literally pamper the customers.

What are the advantages of cooking in clay pots?

S Gayathri, a noted nutritionist in Chennai said cooking in clay prevents ingredients from drying out.

“Even meat can be trimmed of fat,” she said.

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