Snapshots from Asia: Leaf Bowls and Terracotta Cups

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In the bustling North Indian city of Kolkata, it seems ironic that the two things I’m most excited about (besides the mind boggling variety of street food) are probably also the most generic items to be found: leaf bowls and terracotta cups used by wallas (street hawkers) to contain yummy goodness.

These bowls and cups are disposable, biodegradable, ecofriendly, and—best of all—take the place of the nasty paper, plastic, foam, and foil stuff ubiquitous everywhere else.

The bowls are made from leaves that have been “pinned” together with twigs and dried in the sun, while the cups are “expertly thrown by potters at a rate of more than ten cups a minute.”

20080204terracottacup.jpgCalled “matir bhar," the cup here is the bigger, 100 ml one used for water, while chai wallas (tea hawkers) dole out their daintier, one-ounce cousins. All day long, locals can be seen on the streets sipping on the sweet, spicy, milky brew… often accompanied by a dunkable bikkie on the side. Any time is tea time.

It used to be that a hole would be dug after a meal, with the used cups and leaves tossed in and covered with mud. This would eventually turn into a rich humus that could be used to fertilize crops. Urban living, however, means these cups and plates tend to end up as litter on the roadsides. While I know litter is litter, somehow, crumpled plastic just does not have the poetry that broken terracotta cups and shredded leaf bowls do. Especially when all that remains of the cups at the end of the day is red dust shimmering in the air.

About the author: Wan Yan Ling is an impoverished grad student and sourdough finger-crosser living in Rhode Island. She can usually be found in the kitchen procrastinating on "real work" or online tracking down obscure recipes. Ling thinks eating alone is no fun, and she still believes in hand-mixing.

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