Deep in the narrow, winding lanes of Delhi Gate, in a dark, dingy shop in Kasera Bazaar that could easily pass for an abandoned warehouse, cousins Amin, in their sixties, and Abid wait for customers to polish their utensils copper or brass.
What appeared to be a store under construction where abandoned metal sheets, pots and wires, old scraps of fabric, fans and lots of cotton lay strewn about, and a winding brick staircase to an upper floor was, in fact , the cousins workshop, or studio in more contemporary terms, where they skillfully keep alive the dying art of kalai, or polishing or tinning.
Abid and Amin are two of only half a dozen kalaiwalas in the city still engaged in this age-old practice.
This art has been around since food was cooked and eaten in copper and brass utensils. It is basically the practice of covering copper or brass with tin, and its history is mentioned in various historical texts such as Ain-i-Akbari and some much older ones.
However, as the world modernized, copper and brass utensils were to a large extent replaced by plastic, aluminum and stainless steel, and with them the art of kalai also died out. a slow death. But the seventh generation kalaigar or kalaiwalas, Amin and Abid, did not give up hope. They say they are still in business and will remain so until there are people around who use copper and brass utensils for their health benefits.
Amin explains that cooking in a copper or brass pot lined with tin (kalai) filters the food and preserves it from germs. Abid chips in that, according to hakeems, eating food cooked in such a container is good for the brain and stomach.
“Most of the material we use for the kalai is used in the hikmat, even the acid used to clean the vessels,” he told Dawn.
The cousins explain that their ancestors began practicing the art around 350 years ago in the same bazaar where they are now, although they continued to move from shop to shop. “The store we have now is about 40 years old. And our family has been providing this service since it’s been around,” says Amin.
Abid then explains the process of the kalai and shortly afterwards also demonstrates it when an elderly customer arrives to have his copper glass tinned. A small, shallow pit was dug in the ground to burn the coal, and an equally small temporary blast furnace blew air over the coal. “The first step is to clean the utensil with water mixed with caustic soda. After cleaning, the container is heated in hot charcoal for a few minutes; the heating time depends on the type of container. Once the container has become sufficiently hot, tin in the form of tiny strips which melt instantly is applied evenly with a thick cotton swab and the powder of naushadar (ammonium chloride) sprinkled on it.Finally, the container is dipped in cold water to cool it.
When Abid applied the tin and ammonium chloride to the copper glass, it produced white smoke with an unpleasant smell of ammonia and eventually created a shiny silver coating on the vessel. He also points out that this process must be repeated at least twice a year on any container used on a daily basis, as brass and copper can react with acids in foods and prove dangerous to health if not ” tinned” in time.
The cousins say the centuries-old kalai tradition began to decline when cheaper aluminum, non-stick and stainless steel utensils were introduced to the market, and people found brass and copper expensive. And now, there are only a handful of men left, including this duo, to still practice this art. “Only those who can financially afford to use these utensils for cooking seek our services,” says Abid, while Amin adds that their work slightly decreased by 10% when the coronavirus broke.
The elder of the two says their work is unstable: some days he keeps them busy all day, while others they sit idle for hours.
“Someone starting from scratch will take at least 15 to 20 years to perfect that skill; it’s very hard, because you have to be careful about how much heat to give a utensil as well as the cleaning process at the end. We have been there since childhood, we used to sit with our fathers and grandfathers and practice for years. At that time, there was so much of this work that we didn’t see our father for days, sometimes not even on Eid day. He was rarely home.
However, he realizes that this family tradition is going to end with the two of them, as their children had chosen other fields and were not interested in learning this skill. “They are educated so they turned to other things, we were uneducated so we joined our fathers. Although we have assistants working with us, we would probably be the last in our family to practice kalai. It’s not that people have stopped using these utensils, but our kids just aren’t interested.
Abid says all the major hotels and restaurants in the city use brass and copper vessels for cooking, and as long as they are used, people like him will stay in business.
“Food cooked in these pots is tastier, cleaner and more hygienic. The food authority also checks commercial kitchens and issues fines if a utensil’s tinning fades.
Today in Kasera Bazaar, only five or six of the more than 120 shops sell copper and brass utensils, which were once the only type of metal available here.
“Their use has declined over the years because people have forgotten about them and the new generation is not aware of them at all. Our store is open from 10 a.m. to Maghreb prayers, but if we have enough work, we can also sit all night,” concludes the veteran.
Posted in Dawn, May 6, 2022