Do you know how rice was cooked before the invention of modern gadgets like pressure cookers, electric rice cookers and micro oven? In the good old days, rice was cooked in dedicated brass vessels exclusively made for cooking the rice. I have collected some of these rare brass rice cooking pots called Annam ginnelu in Telugu language (Annam = rice, ginnelu = pots). These beautiful brass cooking pots are revered as Goddess Lakshmi (Goddess for wealth and prosperity).
Rice is a staple food in many parts of India. Most of the people offer the first morsel of rice to God by placing the rice in front of the eyes and then eat it as a prasadam. Both the rice and the rice cooking pots are treated with utmost respect and reverence. It is said in Sanskrit “Annam parabrahma swaroopam” meaning food is equal to supreme God. The brass cooking pots are given the same status as the food in which it is cooked.
Rice has been cultivated since 5,000 B.C. As the staple food for more than half of the world’s population, rice has earned its reputation as an indispensable grain. For many societies, rice is truly a way of life.
The Antique Brass Rice Cooking Pots
These antique lovely crafted brass cooking vessels shown in the picture are from our ancestral family collection and must be more than 100 years old. My mother used to call these cooking vessels by names such as Addedu Ginne, Manika Ginne, Tavvedu Ginne and so on and I never understood what they meant. So I did some research to find out what these names mean.
We now weigh rice by kilograms but in 19th century they measured rice by a different system. My research shows that in 19th century there existed a measuring system brought to light by Herbert Wrigley Wilson (1866 – 12 July 1940). He was a British journalist and naval historian and he mentioned that the smallest measure of capacity in use is Gidda which amounts to 900 rice grains. Captain Jervis calculated that one Gidda = 5.837 cubic inches, the fourth of a Sola. With the help of elders who used this measurement system I have arrived at the measuring system that was in use in olden days and it goes like this.
The Indian measuring system of 19th century
Gidda = the smallest measure 5.837 cubic inches
2 Giddalu = 1 Arasola
2 Arasola = 1 Sola
2 Sola = 1 Tavva
2 Tavva = 1 Manika
2 Manika = 1 Adda
2 Adda = 1 Kuncham
I now understand why my mother was calling a particular pot as Tavvedu Ginne. Tavvedu Ginne means Tavva = 2 times of sola and Ginne = pot). Actually my mother used to call them by names that indicate the rice cooking capacity of each pot. The name of the pot indicates its capacity as to how much rice that pot can cook.
She had brass rice cooking vessels in all the sizes mentioned here. Depending on the number of people to be served, she would select a suitable rice cooking pot. She had an earthen stove and she used to cook with firewood flame. She used to apply a paste made out of ash and water to the bottom of the pot where normally the smoke from the firewood fire makes a black mark. This I understand serves two purposes. One, it provides uniform heat to the vessel and hence the rice is also cooked uniformly. Secondly, the smoke gets coated on the ash and not on the brass surface. Hence, cleaning becomes easy and the metal surface is saved from heavy scrubbing .This saves the life of the brass vessel.
The salient features of the antique brass cooking pots:
– These cooking pots are thick all around so that the rice is not burnt and has uniform cooking.
– The shape of the pot is designed to reach the flame of the fire all around up to the middle part of the pot. This makes the cooking time less and provides heat all over the pot for uniform cooking.
– The rim of the pot is very wide .This enables the lid to sit squarely on the rim and seal the vapours inside securely. This wide rim also helps to drain the liquid starch from the boiled rice.
How to drain liquid starch from the pot
Drainage of the hot liquid starch (“Ganji” in Telugu language) is done by placing a draining plate on the rim of the pot and tilting the pot lower and lower till the entire starch is drained. The draining plate is placed on the top side of the rim and held tight to the rim by pressing the plate against the rim by the thumb on one side and the other side of the rim by the combined strength of both pointing finger and the middle finger. Since the starch water is very hot, people use cloth In between the rim and the fingers as an insulator. In the orthodox tradition, Hindu communities, particularly Brahmin community of South India, cloth is not allowed to touch cooked food for “Untu” purpose. What is Untu is explained in the later part of this article. To counter Untu, my mother used to use “Chilla Penkulu” (pieces of clay roof tiles ) to hold the rim and the plate together. The clay tile pieces are bad conductors of heat and at the same time can be washed any number of times to dispel Untu.
How to cook rice with antique brass cooking pots
For preparation of a good rice dish, care should be taken at every step starting from selection of rice grain suitable to the dish you want to prepare, rinsing the rice, soaking the rice, quality and quantity of water that should be added, the selection of the cooking vessel, method of cooking rice and storing the rice preparation. We shall get into the details of these processes.
Selection of rice
We should select rice according to the dish we want to prepare. Depending on the rice you choose, the method of cooking and the cooking time vary. Thus, we should match the rice with the dish we want to cook. For example, old rice needs more water to cook and the cooking is uniform and hence suits better for dishes like Biriyani and fried rice. New rice will be lumpy and sticky and hence is suitable to dishes like khichdi, pongal and payasam.
Basically rice comes in 3 varieties. Short grained variety, medium-grained variety and long grained variety.
Long grained variety of rice is used if you want to prepare a dish that should have loose, separated, fluffy, and slender grains like in Biryani and fried rice
If you want the cooked rice to stick together like in khichdi or pongal and if you want to use rice as a base and you want to mix it with a thick liquid item like Sambar used in South of India, then your choice of rice should be medium-grain variety.
Short-grain rice is almost oval in shape and is very sticky when cooked. It is ideal to use this type of rice for semi liquid and sticky dish like Payasam or rice porridge (java) or rice desserts.
Brown Rice – Rice acquires its colour due to its level of milling. If the milling is done in such a way that its husk and bran are retained, it appears brown. If the milling is done deeply and the husk and the bran are removed completely then the colour of the rice will be white. The brown rice has more nutritional value but takes more time to cook.
Boiled Rice –The rice grain with the husk is boiled in water in large scale till the husk splits into two. Then the rice is dried by spreading the hot and wet grains on the open floor. Then the husk or skin is separated from the rice by processing through a machine. Then the rice is polished in a separate polishing machine. This is also called parboiled rice.
Flavoured Rice – There are certain varieties of rice that have unique flavour and texture. These are something special in rice varieties. Basmati and Jasmine rice fall under this category of something special. This rare and exotic rice are used for preparing rice preparations like Biryani and Pulao.
Rinsing the rice
Rice has to be cleaned well before cooking. Rinsing the rice takes away the impurities in the rice and also the loose starch or rice dust that surrounds the grain. This helps to keep rice less sticky and ensures even cooking. Kadugu Butta is a designed vessel dedicatedly made for cleaning the rice.
Kadugu Butta (The Rinsing Basket)
The antique rinsing basket shown here is made out of brass. It has perforations on all four sides. You have to keep the rice that needs to be cooked in the basket and keep it under running water while rinsing the rice with your palm and fingers. The dirt, the bran, and the loose starch particles will be thrown out along with the water that goes out from the holes. Keep rinsing till the water that comes out from the holes is clean. You can hang the rinsing pot to a hook and leave it for some time. The entire water will get drained out and the remaining water will be absorbed by the rice.
This process will take care of both rinsing and soaking the rice. After half an hour, the rice can be transferred from the rinsing basket to the cooking pot. The Kadugu Butta has a single hanging ring to hang. Because of the single ring, the basket will be tilted giving scope for more water to drain out.
Soaking the rice
To get the best taste out of the rice, it has to be soaked at least half an hour in the water before cooking. The soaking will strengthen the rice and keeps the rice in its shape without breaking even after cooking. Rice tends to break at the time of boiling in water or at the time of stirring the rice with the ladle. Some rice (Basmati for example) cooks better after soaking in water to soften the grains. Soaking also helps for better texture or to prevent breaking of brittle varieties. Most sticky rice won’t cook properly without soaking,
Quantity of water that you should add
Certain varieties of rice take more water to cook than others. For example, old rice requires more water to cook than the new rice. If you want to drain the starch from the cooked rice, you have to add more water to facilitate draining.
Selection of the cooking vessel
You have to select the right size of vessel for a given quantity of rice to be cooked. If the cooking pot is not adequate, the boiled rice will get spilled out and fall into the fire/flame. The pot should be thick so that the cooked rice is not burnt. When you keep uncooked rice in the pot there should be a gap of minimum 4 inches between the surface of the rice and the top of the vessel. If the gap is less, change the rice to a larger vessel. If you want to cook large quantity of rice it is better you cook in two or three batches of smaller quantity and select your cooking pots accordingly. Rice is cooked uniformly in smaller quantities and in small vessels compared to large quantity in larger vessels. By this way you take at a time what is required for immediate consumption keeping the other cooked rice intact in the pots that keeps them fresh and warm.
Methods of cooking rice
There is a general feeling that rice can be cooked in only one way. It is not true. The cooking method depends on the type of rice preparation. The following are the methods of rice cooking.
Attisaru – This is known as absorption method. In this method, a fixed amount of rice and fixed amount of water is kept in a suitable vessel and cooked till the whole water is absorbed by the rice and the rice is cooked well. This method of cooking rice requires lot of practice since the measurements and proportions of water to rice should be precise so that no excess water is left when the rice is cooked or there should not be any shortage of water so that the rice will not be cooked properly. You should not stir the rice and leave it itself to cook. In Attisaru method, the rice will stick to each other and the final condition of the cooked rice is lumpy.
Ganji warpudu – This is known as boiling method. In this method, the water is boiled in a vessel and the rice is added to the boiling water. Rice should be sprinkled into the boiling water so that each grain is surrounded with water and not get sticky with the other rice grain .You should constantly stir the rice so as to avoid sticking of rice to each other. In this method, more water is kept in the vessel than what is required to cook the rice .This excess water, known as “ganji” is drained out into a vessel called Ganji Ginni.
After the rice is cooked the boiling water has to be drained immediately and then some cold water is to be added and again drained. This process of rinsing the cooked rice with cold water is to halt further cooking of the rice.
Storing and preserving the rice
Rice has a low moisture content and hence can be stored normally for 1 to 3 years. It is considered that rice preparation with old rice is tasty and healthy. In our house, my mother used to cook rice that is one year old or at least 6 months old. Cooking with new rice is forbidden. For this reason, we used to store rice for longer periods. Rice is normally stored in a dark, dry and cool place. In our house the rice is stored in large wooden trunk box. For longer storage you should ensure there is no bran in the rice because insects will come for eating the bran and spoil the rice.
In the olden days when refrigerators were not available, cooked rice is preserved in a liquid preparation called Taravani. Taravani is a type of fermented starch liquid and mostly ganji (starch water drained from the cooked rice) is used for this purpose. Now it can be stored in refrigerator for a maximum period of 3 days .Make sure that the rice is in the room temperature before keeping in the fridge.
Concept of Madi, Tadi and Untu
Madi – Madi is a state of purity of the body practiced by the Brahmins of South India. To attain the condition of Madi, the person should take a bath and wear clothes that are washed and dried and untouched by anybody who is not in Madi condition. If anybody in a Madi condition is touched by a person who is in non-Madi state accidentally or otherwise, the Madi condition of the person is gone and to regain the Madi condition the person has to take a bath again and wear the fresh Madi clothes (Madi clothes are called Madi Batta in Telugu ). If Madi batta is not available, the person has to wear wet clothes which are considered as ultimate Madi. Madi is essential condition to participate in religious ceremony or for cooking food for religious ceremonies. The opposite of Madi is Paachi. For a person who is in Madi state, all non-Madi persons are Paachi and are to be avoided any physical contact to maintain Madi condition. My mother used to practice Madi strictly to cook food from early morning till noon every day during her Madi state we were not allowed to go near her, let alone touch her. As a child, I used to wait impatiently till she declares she is out of Madi state and run to touch her.
Tadi – Tadi means wet in Telugu. Wearing Tadi Batta,(wet clothes) is considered as the highest form of purification of the body. To participate in some religious rituals where utmost purification of the body is essential, the performer is required to wear Tadi Batta. If a person is in Madi condition and has to go outside the house, he has to carry water in a lota and immerse his fingers in the water to maintain the Madi condition. By immersing the fingers in the water the person is in a state of Tadi thus holding the highest purity. When a person is in Madi condition and touches a cooked item witch is considered as Untu, the person has to Tadi his fingers ( rinse his fingers in the water ) to get purified. After taking a bath in holy rivers, most of the Hindus pray to Ganga Mata and Surya Bhagavan (Sun God) with wet clothes to pray in utmost Madi condition.
Untu – Untu is a practice of stringent hygienic condition by South Indian Brahmin community. Any food item that is cooked is Untu. If a person touches cooked rice and with the same hand and if he touches raw rice, the raw rice also becomes Untu. Any item that becomes Untu cannot go back to storage for a future usage. It has to be consumed within few hours or thrown out. One has to wash the hands with water after touching an Untu item to attain clean state again and then only they can touch a non-unto item. It is a common practice in Brahmin kitchen for the cooks to wash their hands repeatedly between handing Untu and non-Untu items. Untu is a Telugu word and in Tamil it is called Pathu .This Untu is also applicable to cloth. The clothes worn by a person in unhygienic condition like during the days of menstrual periods of women are also considered as Untu.
Now for the younger generation, it looks very complicated to practice Madi, Tadi and Untu but it is a regular and routine life for the Brahmin community few decades ago. For them, it was a matter of pride that they followed these traditions.