It was the time when copper utensils were used in the home. No other material is so well suited for cooking foods as copper. Its ability to respond quickly to heat or heat off is unequalled by any other metal or ceramic utensil. Copper must be lined since it reacts to acidic foods and without a lining the copper may discolor the food or impart a bitter taste or even at times lead to food poisoning. So it was very important that every couple of months the copper utensils needed a ‘kalai’ (or retinning) .
The retinner or the ‘kalaiwala’ used to hawk around in the colonies urging the womenfolk of the houses to get their copper utensils for ‘kalai’. The kalaiwala used to dig a pit in the ground and prepare a temporary blast furnace, airing it with bellows. He then used to heat the utensil, blasting it off and on. Then he used to sprinkle a little ‘nausadar’ (sal amoniac or ammonium chloride) which used to fume out in a deep white smoke emanating a peculiar ammoniac smell. The powder was then rubbed all over the interior. This process was necessary to rid the interior of the utensil of any grit and make it more abrasive. Then a piece of virgin grade of tin was touched to the blasting hot interior of the utensil. A little touch would melt the tin and then it was quickly rubbed into to whole of the utensil forming a lining of tin in the interior. The utensil was then dipped into a bucket full of water which was kept ready and handy. The sudden contact of the hot utensil with the water used to create a shrill and sharp sound that dimmed when the utensil came to the normal temperature.
The smell of the ammoniac fumes and the shrill sound of cooling vessels also publicised the presence of the kalaiwala to those who could not register his call due to other household chores.
With the replacing of copper utensils with stainless steel and ceramic and china, the ‘kalaiwalas’, in Delhi are now a rare sight.
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