I was reminiscing on my childhood while washing dishes, and naturally, all the memories triggered were related to dishwashing. During the 1960s in South India, the main ingredient used for washing dishes was ash and the scrubber used was coconut fibre. The same was the case with my grandmother. Ammama (grandma) had a tin container filled with the dried coconut fibre that she collected every time she used a coconut. (In India, they retain a portion of the coconut fibre as it is used in all households).

She had a big copper water boiler that supplied all the hot water required for a daily bath. She used a combination of charcoal and Pidakalu (dried cow dung cakes) as fuel. She purchased these items from the local market. The water boiler itself is an antique piece, it is a pity we did not save it. Once the fuel burned and the water heating was done for the day, she collected the ash from the bottom tray and stored it in a separate box.
If at any time, the housemaid complained that she is unable to scrub the burnt food with the coconut fibre, my Ammama gave the maid a piece of tablet foil. Tablet foil??? If you are wondering, back in the old days in India, almost all tablets were packaged in metal foil. We never saw tablets packed in plastic until much later. She had a separate collection of this rare item, the tablet foils. She rarely used medications as she relied heavily on her home remedies.

For particularly greasy dishes, some flour was sprinkled generously and scrubbed and removed. The flour absorbed all the grease, and the utensils were ready for the next round of scrubbing.

The utensils used back then were all made of metal. Ammama had copper utensils, iron pots and pans, steel serving plates and cutlery and some aluminium containers. Not a single one was made of plastic. Ammama’s house was built in such a way that there was a separate area designated for washing dishes that was almost like the back yard. Dishes were never washed at the sink in the kitchen.

Later on, as years rolled by dishwashing powders dawned in the market. Sabena dishwashing powder was popular. Vim powder also used. The next stage was the use of dishwashing soap cake. Today the market has a plethora of dishwashing gels to choose from. The coconut scrub is long gone. Instead, we have all kinds of metal, sponge and plastic scrubbers to choose from.

Today one need not manually wash dishes, it can be done by a machine. Even if you do the dishes by hand, it is not such an unpleasant experience like yesteryears. However, I am not sure if we made a change for the better.

Where does all this soap water from the dishwashing go? Obviously, we are polluting the environment we live in. The second question is, how can we be sure that all the chemicals from the soap are 100% rinsed out from the dishes? If any soapy filmy residue stays on, then that goes straight into our body. There are some anti-bacterial and antifungal agents used commonly in dishwashing soaps that are harmful to our health. The other chemicals used in these soaps are said to cause skin rashes and allergies.

Bringing back Ammama’s methods of dishwashing is not possible for various reasons. Our kitchens consist of a lot of plastic and non-stick containers, we don’t have access to ash and coconut fibre.

Even though back then, through the eyes of a child, the process looked quite unpleasant, today I appreciated how much safer those methods were and how environmentally friendly they were.