Mixing metals in the kitchen

Revival stories from Zishta as it brings its traditional cookware to Chennai

Among the first products that the three co-founders of Zishta — Meera Ramakrishnan, Archish Mathe Madhavan, and Varishta Sampath — wanted to revive were the iconic davarah (brass tumbler) and coffee filter. As Tamilians who love their filter coffee, it was top-of-mind.

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  • Black pottery, Manipur
  • Known as Nungbi Chapu, and crafted by the Tangkhul tribe, this technique is said to be handed down from the Neolithic period. Made with crushed rock powder kneaded into a dough, it is shaped using bamboo and baked at 1,200 degree Celsius. The unique form of pottery done without a potter’s wheel works well for dum cooking.
  • Bronze uruli, Kerala
  • Centuries ago, the Vishwakarma community was invited from Sankarankovil and Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu to build temples and metal crafts by the king. Fine clay is the raw material for this method of metal casting which is readily available on the banks of the river Pampa. Bronze works for all kinds of cooking, but it is particularly good for whipping up sweets like kheer and Mysore pak.

“We couldn’t find a single artisan in and around Kumbakonam [considered the hub of filter coffee in Tamil Nadu] who actually handmade the traditional brass variety. We went door-to-door in a village that was once its handcrafting centre,” recalls Ramakrishnan of the Bengaluru-based brand, known for reviving traditional products, which is launching its Chennai store on April 17.

Ramakrishnan went on to procure a 90-year-old brass coffee filter from an antique shop in Tirunelveli, her hometown, and sent it to an artisan cluster in Maharashtra — known for its skill with brass. “It took four iterations for them to get it just right; making the coffee filter is no mean feat,” says the marketing and strategy consultant.

Today, it shares space with nearly 410 traditional products, sourced from across 14 states. And 70% of the range is kitchen-centric. When the trio started off in 2016, the market was still young and fledgling. Copper wasn’t as cool as it is now. Cast iron skillets were only making their way into people’s kitchens, and eeya chombu, the traditional tin utensil used to make rasam, had not yet become popular on the ’gram.

In the last three years or so, thanks to brands like The Indus Valley, Essential Traditions by Kayal, and Zishta, the market has seen a surge in attempts to resurrect and add glamour to all things traditional.

The co-founders of Zishta — Meera Ramakrishnan, Archish Mathe Madhavan, and Varishta Sampath | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

“Things have changed dramatically,” says Ramakrishnan, referring to the market for traditional products that has seen a spike in the year of the lockdown.

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  • Dosa kallu, Sengottai
  • The craft of making a dosa tawa in Sengottai is at least 300 years old. Thandavala kallu or railway grade iron is heated until red hot in charcoal, hand-beaten, and then seasoned with gingely oil.
  • Lac wood, Kutch
  • The Vadhas, traditionally a nomadic community, worked in villages bordering Kutch’s Great Rann. They carved and coloured wooden furniture and household accessories for local communities. The descendants of these artisans now work in the villages where they have settled. The products, also decorative in nature, are made from locally available babool wood, using a self-made lathe (a string attached to a bow), and lac from natural colours obtained from tamarind seed, turmeric, jiggery, limestone, etc.

Zishta, which just added Japan as its 21st country to ship its products to, prioritises authenticity of the transference of knowledge and culture.

“I remember a couple who came to our store once and bought a tonne of traditional kitchenware. I took the liberty of asking them how big their family was; when they said three, I told them all they needed in the kitchen to transition into a traditional way of life were four key vessels. Tradition is also about minimalism and sustainability,” she concludes.

Zishta is launching on April 17 at the Weddings & Marigolds studio in T Nagar, Chennai.

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