Clay pots are beloved around the world for their ability to cook delicious food, concentrating flavors and retaining heat with ease. From the Moroccan Tagine to the Japanese Donabe, from the Indian Tandoor to the Chinese Bo Zai these vessels aren't just hardworking cooking gear—they can go straight from oven and stove to table while looking as beautiful as their contents taste.
But cooking with clay pots requires a bit of know-how. Since they're made of, well, clay, they perform differently than metal pots and pans. The food cooked in earthen pots are high in iron, calcium, magnesium and sulfur which plays an important role for the well being of a human body. Cooking in earthen pots is a slow process and involves the use of a minimum amount of oil thereby helping in retaining food’s natural oil and moisture. Beyond being good just for food, unglazed earthen pots hold lots of promise for the environment. Hence, it is highly recommended to use earthen pots while cooking as it has multiple benefits in keeping the body healthy and fit. Above all, clay pots add a fantastic aroma to the food, giving it a light earthy favor while retaining 100% of its nutrients.
Around the World Dishes cooked in Clay
One of the most popular way of cooking in India is - "Cooking with a tandoor" and "Tandoori Chicken" is one of India's worldwide famous dishes. This is the Indian way of cooking over a charcoal fire known as a tandoor. A tandoor is essentially a cylindrical clay oven, shaped like a large urn and typically at least one metre in height. Historically, tandoors were sunk up to the neck in earth.
Tandoors are believed to have originated in Persia and have been found in various guises throughout Central Asia. It takes us back to around 5000 years ago, to the Indus valley and Harappan civilizations of ancient India. Historical sites from many civilizations including Egyptian and Mesopotamian have been found to find evidence of tandoors.
A charcoal (or wood can be used after initial coal burn) fire is built inside the tandoor and allowed to slow burn to heat the oven. The heat is controlled by the amount of oxygen that is allowed into the pit. Our tandoor has a small window at the bottom of the tandoor that is opened and closed to control the flow of air and therefore oxygen. The walls of the tandoor reflect heat produced by the burning of charcoal and increase temperature further. Depending on amount of coal used and the stoking of the embers, tandoors can heat up to around 480C (900F).
Cooking in a tandoor uses many different techniques;
1) Radiant heat from the pit (this can be likened to baking).
2) Direct heat from charcoal (allows grilling).
3) Smoke cooking (from marinade and juices dripping on coals).
4) Hot clay walls (to cook flat breads, naans and rotis by sticking them on the flat clay walls).
It is also one of the healthiest forms of cooking as any oils or marination drips from the skewers on to the coal, delivering a unique, smokey flavour and succulent meat.
Modern Tandoors were brought to India by the Mughals. Portable Tandoori ovens were invented by Jahangir, a Mughal ruler who had his cooks carry these wherever he travelled.
Other than the Tandoor, a traditional clay cooking pot is called a "Chatti" and commonly used in the South (Kerala) to cook spicy hot fish curries. A similar pot is also used in North India, in the Punjab for slow cooking of black lentils and mustard leaf. "Handi" is another type of clay pot used to cook meats and rice- like "Biryani's.
Tagine, or tajine in French, refers to the Berber cookware which is a conical-shaped, two-piece earthenware clay pot. It also refers to the dish or stew.
The design of the tagine is quite genius and practical. It is actually a two-piece set with a round and shallow base topped by an elegant cone, tapering at its tallest point with a knob that also serves as a handle to check on what’s inside. Such form possesses an important function; the fluted cone traps steam as the dish cooks, circulating it within the base to continuously and evenly cook whatever is inside. The combination of higher heat with moisture retention due to the tagine’s domed lid concentrates the limited amount of liquid inside, allowing it to caramelize slightly. The end result is an incredibly flavorful meal.
While the tagine developed as a portable oven, it has become an iconic decorative piece too. Practical and durable (except if you drop it, of course), the dish is synonymous with Morocco for good reason: every roadside stall, tourist restaurant and cafe seems to have pots of the stuff simmering all day long.
The tagine was used primarily used by nomads in North Africa who made food over a fire. Because of the tenderization in the tagine, they could use lower quality and tougher meat to produce a succulent stew.
In Chinese, the pot used for such cooking is generally known as shaguo or “sand pot,” or baozi, a Cantonese word for “little pot.” Clay pot dishes are sometimes labeled as hot pot dishes on English menus of Chinese restaurants. But these should not be confused with true hot pot dishes, which are served in a large metal chafing dish with a heat source and usually cooked at the table. These dishes are properly known in Chinese as huoguo “fire pot.”
Among the true sand pot dishes, a famous one is yu tou sha guo “fish head sand pot” which uses fish heads in a soupy broth. Hainan style chicken rice and a chicken dish with bitter melon are other famous dishes made made with this kind of pot.
In Japanese cooking in the clay pot used for cooking is called a "donabe" or “earthen pot.” Donabe is just that, a lidded earthenware pot, which is normally used over a low flame for slow cooking. This kind of pot is not submerged in water.
In Vietnam, clay pots are used to stew or braise a wide range of foods. It is probably in Southeast Asia and parts of southern China that the clay pot has reached its highest and widest use. Some examples of clay pots in Vietnamese cooking include Pork Clay Pot and Prawn Clay Pot.
Should You Cook in Earthen Pots? Get Back to the Basics!
Ayurveda suggests cooking in a clay pot. Cooking in a clay pot is much better than cooking in a normal utensil, not just for its various health benefits, but also makes it much simpler to cook and improves the quality of the food at the end. The porosity and natural insulation properties of clay causes heat and moisture to circulate throughout clay pots. This makes cooking in a clay pot a much slower process but has added benefit of preventing amateur cooks from burning their dishes. More importantly, this causes the moisture and nutrient loss while cooking in clay pots to be much lower compared to cooking in metal or enamel lined utensils."
1. Porous in Nature
Clay pot's porous nature allows both moisture and heat to circulate through the food, which results in slow yet aromatic food. It also retains the nutrition of the food, which is generally lost in other types of utensils. The thermal inertia in clay pots helps meats stay tender and soft as the muscle proteins denature and collagen breaks down completely.
2. Alkaline Nature
Clay is alkaline in nature and it interacts with the acidity in the food, thereby neutralising the pH balance and eventually making food healthier and a lot tastier. It is believed to provide the required minerals including calcium, magnesium, iron, phosphorus and sulphur that benefits our health.
3. Lesser Usage of Oil
4. Ensures Flavorful Food
Due to slow cooking and porous nature of clay pots, the moisture and aroma tends to stay in the pot without losing any nutrient, hence making it flavorsome. It also has an earthy flavor added to it, which we bet you may not get in any other utensil.
5. Inexpensive and Easily Available
No matter how modern times may be, we are sure there are shops that still sell pure and unglazed clay pots. Clay pots are not very expensive, at least not more than any other types of utensil. You can get them in different shapes and sizes without really making a hole in your pocket.
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