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When summer arrives, go solar

Sheela Jaywant

Once upon a time, when energy conservation wasn’t fashionable and the term global warming wasn’t invented, I used a primitive dabba called the ‘solar cooker’ because ‘gas’ was rationed and expensive. Those who had a single cylinder had to keep track of its use and of exactly when to book a refill so that it came just when the ‘gas got over’. Or depend on the messy, smelly, less efficient kerosene-stoves (I had a wick one) which had to be retrieved from attics or garage corners and spruced up urgently.
In states (like Rajasthan, Andhra, UP, Jharkhand) where the summer sun’s rays can make your blood boil even in the shade, using the solar cooker wasn’t a fad. It was a wise investment. Bought with a government subsidy, mine paid for itself within two years, in reduced ‘gas’ consumption.
It was a 2 feet x 2 feet plastic box with insulated walls, painted black within and out. There were two lids hinged at one side, which could sit on top of each other when shut. One lid was made of convex glass and the other had a mirror on the inside to catch and reflect rays. When closed, the glass lid touched the rubber rim of the box’s interior, thus sealing off whatever was kept within it: four thin aluminium vessels with lids, painted black on the outside. In these vessels I cooked our meals. Dal, rice, a vegetable and a cake could be cooked/baked in three-four hours. I’d ‘load’ my cooker in the morning and by lunchtime, the meal was ready. Roasting sooji/ groundnuts, clarifying butter, boiling potatoes, even making biscuits was possible. Whilst in use, the glass lid was kept down and the mirror-lid kept open. The heat generated was such that I suffered burns a couple of times when I opened the glass lid without taking adequate precautions. It had latches with kept the lids in place and wheels that helped transport it from one place to another.
Since the cooker was left in the open verandah to get maximum sunlight, besides inquisitive neighbours, there was always a monkey or two that wanted to see what was inside, especially when the vessels’ lids weren’t closed, like when a brinjal was being roasted. It was amusing to me and horrifying to the poor animal, when it touched what it thought was access to an easy meal, recoiling when it found the surface extremely hot to touch. I compensated for this disappointment by giving the animal a banana.
“It was more,” Shri Husband said, “like you were paying fees for the entertainment it provided you.” Whatever! Sometimes, when I steamed fish in it, or broiled chicken, cats found their way to it, sniffed around and left disappointed.
From March till the monsoons, with eight hours of bright daylight, I could cook two meals per day. Through the chilly winter months, it took an entire day for a single meal of four items. No, the ingredients didn’t spoil. Slow cooking has its advantages.
The disadvantages were cloudy/dusty days. Unexpected clouds meant the meal had to be transferred to a conventional cooking method, involving waste of time. Rare, that was.
“It’s surprisingly easy to predict weather conditions when your food depends on it.” Shri Husband stated once, years ago.
“So,” some friends asked me, “How do you season the dals, sauté the vegetables?”
“The same way,” I answered, “you boil something in a pressure-cooker or other vessel. After it’s cooked, you give the phodnni/ tadka.” But I’d found that if I seasoned the dal and sautéed the vegetables before putting it into the solar-cooker, at mealtime, I simply had to put the vessels directly to the table from the solar-cooker.” The difference in taste was negligible.
Can one solar-cook with coconut milk? Don’t know, never tried.
With my penchant for forgetting stuff, I learnt that nothing ever burns in a solar-cooker because the temperature doesn’t go beyond 100 degrees Celsius. And no ants/cockroaches could enter the seal to the inner compartment even when I’d forgotten about the item left inside it.
“What else can you use the solar-cooker for?” Bai Goanna asked.
“Stupid question,” I retorted.
“Not really,” Shri Husband butted in. “A pressure-cooker can be used for autoclaving instruments in a crunch. So, is there any other use for a solar-cooker is a valid question. You may say ‘no’ if there is no other use, but you can’t call the question ‘stupid’.”
I reserved my comments. As always.
And then I remembered, I’ve used the solar-cooker for drying damp paper napkins and they’d come out as good as new.
“Why would you want to recycle used paper napkins?” Bai Goanna asked.
This really was a stupid question. I snapped: “Damp, unused.” Then added: “The solar-cooker was quite good for making crisp slightly soggy snacks and even roasting besan for ladoos. Of course, the micro-wave oven wasn’t available in India then.”
“You must have saved lots of money, huh?” Bai Goanna asked next.
“Yes,” I said happily.
“What’s your idea of lots?” asked Shri Husband.
“Yeah,” said Bai Goanna taking his side. “Not as much as Vijay Mallya, no?”
“But,” I wanted to say, “Mallya didn’t make his millions by eating solar-cooked food.” Instead I kept quiet. My life is a world apart from his. For some strange reason, my limited income is meticulously tracked by the government. And unlike those of his ilk, I do believe that, come summer, if I use natural energy I will save on bills and help the planet in some small, indirect way.
Welcome, summer.

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