Fuels for our fires

by Gautam Raja

India has the strangest system for household cooking gas. You are given one or two cylinders of LPG, and when you run out, there’s a nifty phone booking system that allows you to re-order in seconds. After that, all efficiency dies like an unfed flame. You have to wait for anywhere from seven to fourteen days for a text saying that your cylinder will be delivered “shortly”. Then, at some point in the next two or three days, a man will come unannounced to your door with the cylinder. If you aren’t home, he may or may not leave a note saying he’d come—either way, you have to start all over again.

If you mistime this process, you will end up with no gas to fuel your stove, and have to do what we did—go out and buy an induction cooker, for these are all the rage here now. After this, you become nervous about the gas you’re using, and that big oven you brought back from the US starts to look a like a dusty room you never use.

Not that becoming aware of your energy consumption is a bad thing… but I just wish it wasn’t quite so axe-above-head. As we get into summer and the power cuts start, the induction cooker won’t work either, since the apartment complex generator doesn’t supply the heating line. So if we run out of gas, we have no way to make chai in the morning. (We’ll get by with everything else, but no chai in the morning is a household disaster.)

A few days ago, I drove across town and sat for ages in a small garage business where I purchased a solar oven. It’s essentially a black box with a glass lid and mirror, all of which is housed in an aluminium suitcase. You put the food in regular “tiffin boxes” that have been painted black, put them in the cavity, close the glass, angle the mirror to throw some more light on the box and off you go. About four hours of sun will totally overcook your vegetables, and even overcook chicken thighs. That’s pretty amazing. This isn’t even one of those fancy parabolic type cookers that can, apparently, set a pressure cooker whistling.

About halfway through the cooking process, I opened one of the boxes and saw that the food was at that beautiful cooking temperature, one where only the occasional bubble breaks the surface—a temperature that preserves flavour yet allows for a tender texture. In spite of the overcooking, I found that everything tasted intensely of itself; solar cooking is supposed to preserve flavour and nutrients like no other cooking method.

And like anyone, I’m sure, who has ever used a solar water heater, or connected up a solar panel, I looked out and thought about how much energy we have pounding down on us that even about three square feet is able to cook chicken and vegetables in less than an afternoon, without needing any attention whatsoever. There’s no guilt about leaving it out too long, about picking long-cooking ingredients and methods, or about doing it day after day, it’s all energy that would have either gone pinging about uselessly or warmed up things we don’t want warmed up, such as our roof.

And when combined with a brief “flame finish” to crisp or caramelise, things get so much more versatile with only a tiny addition of non-free energy use. My solar-cooked potatoes and red capsicum became an excellent dish when blasted under a gas broiler for a few minutes.

But soon, the summer power cuts will intersect with the monsoon clouds and, given our luck, the emptying of our gas cylinder… what are we left with then? Time to start building the wood-fired oven.

First published in Gulf News, April 16, 2013