The Indian Handi Has Been Seasoned With A Rich History
Image Credit: Be it chicken, mutton or paneer, a handi can enhance the flavours of one and all.

In India, we have countless traditional cooking methods that have lost their essence in the face of increasing technologies. The gas stoves, induction plates and pressure cookers have replaced the chulhas, matkas and handis. While I’ve never encountered a chulha in my lifetime of 24 years, I have definitely heard a lot and to some extent, even tasted food cooked on a chulha. Chulha, for the unversed, is an earthen cooking technique which makes use of a brick stove to cook food. At a time when gas stoves and inductions were a far-sighted vision, it was the chulha that filled the appetites of many. Even today, several villages in India continue to cook meals on the chulha. 

I remember the first time I tasted a dish made on the chulha. Oblivious to this fact, I instantly remarked that there was something different about the mutton gravy that we were eating in the winter of 2019. My friend, who is originally from Bihar but has been residing in Delhi for the past 15 years, told me that the mutton was cooked on a chulha. I was quite surprised since I had never had it before. She added that while all the regular meals were cooked on a gas stove at her house, it was dishes like mutton, chicken and fish which were simmered on a chulha. This gave the dish an authentic flavour and a rich texture which otherwise gets lost on a gas cook top. 

This small incident of the chulha reminds me of another traditional Indian cooking style, the handi. For those living under a rock, a handi is a special earthen pot made from clay and used for cooking a variety of dishes. The book “More From Mahadev: Indian Origins Of Basque, German, Russian And Spanish Peoples” also describes a handi as “large cooking vessel”. While the idea of slow-cooking has been known to have been brought about by Persian settlers and later used extensively in the Mughal courts, the handi has been around much before that. The archaeological studies have found reminisces of clay pots from the excavation of Harappan and Indus Valley civilizations. 

Starch analysis conducted during a study of this period by Washington University reveals that there were traces of aubergines and later dates, gourds, mushrooms and a lot many vegetables in the clay pots. The marks on the surfaces of these pots is considered to be evidence of the age-old practice of cooking food in handis. It is believed that food cooked in a handi is not only able to retain the nutrients but also embrace the authentic flavours of the dish. The food is cooked slowly in a handi and the heat directly reaches the food from the round-bottomed pot. 

The preservation of the delicious flavours owes to the way the food is cooked in its own steam in a handi once it is sealed with a lid. Due to this technique, lesser amount of oil is needed to prepare the food. Moreover, the acidic nature of food is lowered when cooked in a clay pot because of the alkaline properties of the utensil and this makes the food easy for digestion. 

Since we’ve talked so much about handi, here’s what all you can spruce up with this centuries-old Indian utensil. 

1.  Handi Chicken 

This slow-cooked chicken dish is the most popular handi dish. Tomatoes, onions and curd are used for making the curry while a host of spices are infused into the pot like cardamom, cloves, cumin, cinnamon and kashmiri red chilli to give it a distinct taste. The flavourful and lip-smacking curry owes itself completely to the earthen flavours of the handi. 

2.  Handi Khichdi 

Yes, you read that right. Your humble khichdi can also get a complete makeover when cooked in a handi. The marination of rice and vegetables should be done properly to ensure that the flavours come out well. The abundance of iron you get from this dish is unmatched and the taste will surely make you go bonkers. 

3.  Handi Gola Kebab 

Now you know that handi isn’t just great for curries. You can make these delicious starters too. The minced meat and roasted chickpeas are rolled into kebab balls and made in a handi. The flavours of both the core ingredients are infused with each other and finally served to relish. 

4.  Mutton Handi 

Well, if chicken can be cooked in a handi then why not mutton? The mutton pieces comes out soft and tender with a rich and rustic curry. The use of bay leaves, cumin and coriander leaves adds to the aroma and freshness of this luscious curry.