There is something homely and comfortable about eating from steel plates and bowls. Most Indian households tend to have specific plates for family members, recognised by the height or style of the rim. But steel plates are not for guests or special occasions, losing out to glass and china crockeries, which are often treated as prized possessions. For a country that has always celebrated its metalware, why are steel plates losing to crockery classism?
The Rice Ceremony or the Annaprashon, is the occasion when Bengali Hindu kids (boys at six months and girls at five) are fed rice for the first time. It’s a grand celebration. The kid is dressed up like a groom/bride, and has to sit through a bunch of tedious rituals (most photographs of the day will show their annoyance), is showered with gold and gifts, and the child’s uncle (mother’s brother) feeds him/her with a lavish feast. A gigantic plate is heaped with rice and various leafy vegetable curries, stir fries, gravies, and a range of fritters. Bowls of various sizes orbit the plate, filled with curries of fish, chicken, mutton, tiger prawns, lobsters, kheer, sweets, and other desserts. Once the child has been fed the first morsel of rice by the uncle — a momentous occasion — he/she is generally given a lick and taste of all the gravies, while the uncle polishes everything off. A common photograph of the feast is of the child sucking on a giant fried fish head with his/her toothless gums, while everyone watches gleefully, satisfied, that like a true Bengali, the child has taken to fish.
That gigantic plate and matching bowls generally would have the child’s name inscribed on them. Mostly nicknames. And generally those utensils are used regularly to feed the young fellow. My lunch plate at home, for the longest time, was my Annaprashon plate. The other day, while tinkering around in my mother’s kitchen I came across two bowls, with rippled rims to emulate petals, with my nickname inscribed into the bottom. These bowls were almost as old as I was. The glass my mother drinks water from, is older than me. I still recognise the bowl and saucer my grandmother used to drink her black tea from. My father’s lunch plate has the tallest rim, with a sharp edge. My lunch plate’s rim rose straight, and then flattened sideways. The steel platter my family kneads dough in has been around for almost 40 years. The ladles, separate for stirring and frying, bear witness to my nuclear household’s history and memories. They have not been replaced because they don’t need to be. Steel gets shinier with use, is extremely durable, and is malleable enough to transform into any tool for culinary requirements. There are enough studies on how steel could be healthier to eat from too.
Here, I must mention, the petiteness of the word “plate” does not quite capture the size of a “thaala”. A thaala is much bigger than a plate, much roomier, meant to hold a mountain of rice or multiple chapatis or rotis, a bowl of dal, a couple of sabzis, and a bowl of fish or meat. The rim is supposed to be high enough to dam runny curries, allowing the eater to comfortably mix rice with it and lap it all up (when a brothy masoor dal is involved, we even pick up the plate and drink off of it in my family). A thaala is supposed to be big enough to hold all the bowls when set in front of the eater, who will then remove them from the plate to make space for, well, eating. This practice, common across the country, has led to the thaali, the concept of dining out where a long list of dishes — sometimes served unlimitedly — is offered as a set menu for a fixed price. While thaalis primarily have been Gujarati and Rajasthani food, even Malayali Sadhyas, which are traditionally served on banana leaves, have now been adapted into the thaali format at many restaurants. A banana leaf roundel is placed on the plate as a nod to authenticity, and for Instagram purposes. The other kind of steel dinner plate is the one with compartments, often used at lunch homes and canteens. The biggest square is for the carb, the next two pockets for the dal and a gravy, the one smaller than those for the protein, and the smallest for dessert. While this sort of plate is used only in jails in the West, in India, it is an efficient way of controlling portions in mass kitchens. Many homes in the north use these plates for meals too.
But, every middle-class family will always have special sets of glass or china dinnerware, set aside for special occasions and guests. And that’s not the case only in India. Remember that episode in F.R.I.E.N.D.S. where Monica set aside her wedding china for the Queen of England, which Chandler went on to completely wreck? Similarly, our families have steel utensils for daily use, some glassware and china sets for occasions that are a few levels up, and that one or two fancy ass crockery sets that are pulled out — much to constant palpitations — for “special” functions. Breaking any piece of these sets would cause much gunfire and heartache. But why exactly are we ashamed of our steel plates? Are they not fancy because they are emblematic of domesticity? Are steel plates the equivalent of boxer shorts and faded baggy T-shirts? But, we must also understand that glassware is a western import. The Indian subcontinent has always used metalware — brass, copper, tin, bronze — for metal’s durability, health properties, and sheen. Why then do we not have a home set of steel plates and a fancy bronze of brass set for guests? Why is it that we admire bronze or kansa utensils at themed restaurants and hotels for that “authentic desi touch”, but prefer glassware for our occasions at home? As Indians, are we saying that we accept our Indianness in the privacy of our homes, and when it is a commodified, exotic experience, but not when we need to impress, flatter, or entertain our peers? Is such a simple, apparently insignificant practice, a sign of our subconscious insecurity, a sort of identity crisis, a self-defeatism, where we need a “western” stamp to prove that we are elevated and moneyed? Is this a twisted sort of classist behaviour that we have unconsciously imbibed as a country, where, unknowingly, we have been condescending to ourselves?
Like many other things, we have endowed glassware with connotations of money, posh, and class. It is both a sign of our colonial hangover and insecurity. This is why we rarely see Instagram food handles serving up food in steel plates. Stone and wood are preferred for their artistic value — again something that we would never use regularly at home. A food-based proverb captures this behaviour most aptly — ghar ki murgi daal baraabar. That which is one’s own, is commonplace, is easily available, no matter how special it is, shall always be taken for granted and placed second to trifler imports.