For Kayal Vizhi Sriram, starting an online platform to sell traditional handcrafted cookware was the next logical step to running an organic food store. She and her husband had been running the store for a few years in Chennai when she realized that providing all-natural ingredients wasn’t enough to help people lead a healthy life. It was also important to cook in the right vessels to retain the nutrients and flavours of the ingredients.
Thus began the journey to find cookware made of clay, iron and copper. There’s a reason our grandparents used these utensils, says Sriram. Cooking in clay, for instance, reduces the acidity of food, even if it takes more time than non-stick pans.
Three years since, her platform, Essential Traditions has opened four physical stores in Chennai and Bengaluru, and employs 16 people. “We are expecting to hit the ₹1 crore revenue mark this year," claims Sriram.
Moulding the idea
To gauge if there’s a market for a brand like Essential Traditions, Sriram took part in exhibitions in 2016, showcasing the clay vessels she sourced from a potter on the outskirts of Chennai. “I borrowed ₹30,000 from my mother for the first exhibition. The response was so good that not only did I pay her back but also earned some extra money," she recalls. It also increased footfalls at her food store, where a separate room is used to display clay and metal utensils. “If we were getting 10-15 customers at the organic store, after the exhibitions, we saw nearly 100 customers. It just clicked," says the 37-year-old.
Jayasri Samyukta Iyer, executive committee member of the Crafts Council of India, which promotes and sells traditional handcrafted products like cooking pots and vessels in its stores, reiterates that food cooked and served in traditional patrams (cooking vessels) is not only tasty but also rich in nutrients. “They help retain the goodness of all the ingredients that go into making a food item," says Iyer.
A road less travelled
Sriram’s collection for Essential Traditions started with terracotta items like pots, bowls and water bottles, and expanded to iron and cast iron tawas, skillets, spatulas, soapstone cooking pots, wooden and coconut fibre kitchen accessories.
Finding all-natural products was difficult, admits Sriram. “For instance, for clay we had to ensure where the potters got their soil from, whether they added chemicals to the soil. With soapstones, there are few artisans left who make cooking pots. In fact, it’s manufactured only in a certain part of Tamil Nadu, where it’s made once or twice a year to satisfy the festival crowd."
Besides finding the right artisans, providing traditional utensils that matched modern sensibilities was also an issue. “We wanted products which a working woman could use. Luckily, we found potters, who could create traditional utensils that matched modern tastes. We now buy from wholesale potters, who supply exclusively to us," she says.
Creating an online presence
To attract the health and eco-conscious generation, Sriram set up an online store in October and it has helped her increase Essential Traditions’ customer base.
She also produces video content regularly, which is posted on platforms like YouTube, Instagram and Facebook. Her videos not only make a case for using traditional cookware but also address the issue of maintaining them.
“All these require tender loving care. We used to give a pamphlet with instructions on cleaning and maintaining the clay, stone and metal products. But I realized my customers find it easier to watch than read," she says. Now, many people, she adds, visit her store after coming across the videos.
Social media has been helpful in popularizing traditional cookware, admits Iyer. “Demand for craft-based cookware and serveware has definitely increased over the last few years. With home chefs, Instagrammers and bloggers experimenting with vintage ‘family’ recipes, using traditional cookware is only logical. And with the growing popularity of ‘slow food’, ‘going organic’ and sustainability, non-toxic and handmade patrams are back in many kitchens," she says.
For Sriram, sustainability means living a simple life. Her kitchen reflects her belief. “I cook a lot, dinners are always made by me. I only have one tawa, one kadai and no pressure cooker at home. I would like the tawa to be passed on as an heirloom piece to my children. My four-year-old likes to watch me cook in these traditional vessels, and nine-year-old cooks along with me," she says, with a smile.
Even though there is a growing awareness about traditional cookware and serveware, Sriram believes there’s a need to encourage the artisans who make them. “We need to have geographical indication tag for craftsmen too, to keep alive their creations." The Slow Movement follows ventures that are changing how we look at health, beauty and fashion.