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The grinding stone: A slice of south Indian life in Calcutta

By Nishi Pulugurtha

No matter where a south Indian lives, there are certain things that one will find in a south Indian home. One such thing is the grinding stone. It is a pretty large stone that is round in shape with a fairly big cup cut into its centre. Another piece of stone that is a bit long and rounded at the ends is used as the pestle. The size of this is such that it fits in comfortably into the round grinding base. Made of stone, they are really heavy. When my mother married and shifted base to Calcutta, this piece of equipment was missing in the house. Amma needed it to grind the batter for making fluffy hot idlies and crisp dosas. Unlike these days when everything is available in stores or online, this huge stone mortar and pestle was not available in Calcutta. My dad tried to look it up here and was told that since only ‘Madrasis’ used it, it was not available in Calcutta. It might sound strange, but in my childhood, anyone from the south of India was referred to as a ‘Madrasi’. When people referred to me as one, I took great pains to explain that there was no such thing as a ‘Madrasi’ and that there were four south Indian states those days. But then, no one really bothered and we were all ‘Madrasis’.

Amma decided to do the next best thing. She asked her brother to bring one stone mortar and pestle from her hometown of Kakinada in Andhra Pradesh to Calcutta. This is one incident that my parents spoke about often. My uncle bought the stone mortar and lugged it all the way by train. As he was travelling, the ticket checker, seeing his heavy luggage, wanted to know what it was. He then insisted that my uncle pay for that heavy piece of luggage. My uncle came to our place and told my parents that he had to shell out money for bringing it. He actually had to pay the price of a ticket from Samalkot junction (the nearest railhead to Kakinada) to Calcutta. Well, all the difficulty was soon forgotten as this stone mortar became an important part of my mother’s kitchen. Once it was in, we had our regular quota of idlis, doas, and chutneys of all kinds.

Using the mortar and pestle was not easy. It required immense amount of dexterity and skill. Amma had a lot of practice in using it. We often sat before her as she used it. Soaked urad dal was put into the centre of the base, a little water was added and then the heavy stone pestle was put in. The churning was done using the left hand. The right hand was needed to push in the dal and to add water, as and when needed. I often tried emulating my mother’s actions and found it impossible to grind using my left hand, leave alone using both hands simultaneously. This was used not just to grind batter but to make yummy and spicy chutneys too, using a different wooden pestle. When I was about ten years of age, our first mixer grinder arrived. I remember Amma saying that it would make her task much easier. Since then, that was how we ground batter for ildis, dosas, vadas, pesarattu, and chutneys. The mixer grinder, we also called it the mixie, was an important part of our kitchen. The grinding stone was kept away and it was not used at all. When we moved home to a smaller flat, we decided to leave it behind. It was too big and, moreover, it was never used.

Today, a new machine arrived home – a table top wet grinder. My aunt insisted my kitchen needed one. Unlike the mixer grinder which had steel blades, the wet grinder had two stones instead that did the grinding. The stone blades were round and were inside a steel drum that had a stone base too. My aunts and cousins down south vouched that the batter done using a wet grinder was much better and yielded fluffier idlis and crispier dosas. It was almost like the stone one. I remembered my grandmother saying, years ago, that the mixer with its steel blades was no substitute for the stone mortar and pestle. Yes, it was cumbersome, needed much more effort and hard work, but the end result was much better. So, we have gone back to using the stone but in a modified, easier way. I am yet to try out the wet grinder that arrived today. As I opened the box to check out the contents, the stones stole my attention and a flood of memories came back. Today, after many years, images of that stone mortar and pestle and Amma’s old kitchen came to mind. It was called the rubbu rollu in Telugu. I am waiting to try the new acquisition and hoping that the idlis and dosas I make thereafter are going to testify to the fact that the stones do a better job.

Bio:
Dr. Nishi Pulugurtha is Associate Professor, Department of English, Brahmananda Keshab Chandra College, Kolkata. She is an academic with varied interests and writes on travel, too. Twitter: @nishipulu

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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘The importance of being a flaneur today’, edited by Maitreyee B Chowdhury, author, Bangalore India.

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