Clay pots have been used ever since people started cooking! Here's a brief overview and some ideas to try.
by LeAnn Nguyen
June 27, 2018
In the modern kitchen, steel is king. There’s a reason the show is called Iron Chef and not Wooden or Ceramic Chef! But steel, especially stainless steel, is a relatively new material that only became more accessible after the industrial revolution. For most of our culinary history, cooking was done with ceramic pottery, mostly clay pots. As a result, this cooking instrument has had a role in cuisines spanning across time and geography. Many cooks swear it works its own kind of magic on our favorite foods.
Evidence of pottery used in cooking dates back to prehistoric times, with 20,000-year-old fragments of scorched pots found in a Chinese cave. Pot fragments as old as 15,000 years have also been found in Japan. It’s thought that these earliest clay pots were used by hunter-gatherers for cooking fish soup due to the traces of marine fatty acids that can still be detected in them.
In more recent clay pot history, earthenware cooking containers have been found all across the vast Roman Empire, from the British Isles to the Middle East. It’s easy to see how from here, the clay pot was able to gain such widespread use in world cuisine.
The simplicity and unique qualities of the clay pot helped it gain and maintain popularity. All a cook needs to do is soak the pot and season it to prevent the pot from cracking and the food from burning. Once that’s done, it’s ready to be used as a vessel for cooking food. One benefit comes from the pores in the clay, which circulates heat and moisture evenly, making them great for cooking over a long period of time without food drying out or burning. Clay pots are the original slow cooker! This slower method of cooking also helps food retain its nutrients.
Another claimed feature is that clay, being more alkaline, neutralizes acidic foods, giving them a natural sweetness. Try making two of the same dish with a steel pot and a clay pot and see which turns out better for you.
There are way too many clay pot dishes to list them all here, and if you really want to get into clay pot cooking, you’ll have no shortage of recipes to explore from all around the world. Here are just a few of the highlights:
Ethiopian food is traditionally made almost entirely in clay pots, the most popular of which is one called a shakla dist. You can make the stew dish doro wat using them, which you can also get at Cafe Selam in the Central District.
The stews of Brazil are also commonly prepared using clay pots, including its national dish, the meat stew feijoada. You can find this on offer at The Grill from Ipanema in Belltown.
Clay pot rice is a comfort food staple of many Asian cuisines, with the clay pot giving the rice a unique flavor and texture. You can try it served with a variety of meats at A+ Hong Kong Kitchen in the International District.
Vietnamese use clay pots mainly for a style of braising or stewing called kho, in which a protein and accompanying vegetables are slow simmered in a salty and savory sauce. You can find bò kho, beef stew, at Cafe Huong Que and cá kho tộ, braised catfish, at Rainier BBQ!