A palayok is a clay pot used as the traditional food preparation container in the Philippines. Palayok is a Tagalog word; in other parts of the country, especially in the Visayas, it is called a kulon; smaller-sized pots are referred to as anglit.

Cooking in a palayok

The palayok is made of earthenware, a porous ceramic material. This allows steam from cooking to evaporate out of the pores in the earthenware. Juices from the cooking food would not begin to burn until all the water has evaporated, after which the food is thoroughly cooked. Since ceramic does not transfer heat as much as metal, cooking in a palayok entails a longer time and a higher temperature that would normally be using metal cookware.

The palayok should not be cleaned using household detergents, as the porous material would easily imbibe chemicals in the detergent that would later impart unwanted flavours in the food during cooking. It is instead cleaned by soaking in warm water and when the detritus has sufficiently softened, by scrubbing with salt. (See Cleaning the clay pot)

Filipino cuisine expert Maria Orosa is credited with turning the earthenware pot into an oven. Called the “Palayok Oven”, the contraption consists of a palayok fitted with a piece of thin sheet metal cut to fit the bottom of the pot and a piece of aluminium foil placed below the lid. These metal pieces are designed to reflect heat back into the pot. The pot is heated by using a native pugon or kalan, a small wood-fired stove similar to a Japanese shichirin.

When the pot is saturated with water and put into the oven, there is a slow evaporation of steam from within the pores of the clay itself. During the cooking process, the food forms its own juices. These juices cannot escape until the pot is completely dry. Fortunately, when the pot becomes dry, the food is cooked! Because wet clay does not become as hot as metal, it is necessary to cook at a higher temperature than is usual, (230°C rather than the customary 175°C). However, in spite of this high temperature, the danger of burning is minimal and can only take place if the food is cooked for too long a period of time.

As a general rule, if you add 55°C and 30 minutes to the cooking time of any recipe, it can be adapted for use in a clay pot. For instance, if you normally cook a 1.25 kg chicken at 175°C for 1 hour, you will need to cook it in a clay pot at 230°C for 1½ hours.

The manufacturers of clay pots recommend that they always be placed in a cold oven. It is also possible to reheat food in a clay pot. Soak the lid in cold water for 10 minutes, cover the pot and pop it back into a 175°C oven for 30 minutes.

Cleaning the clay pot

As you discover the almost miraculous results of cooking in clay, you will be using your pot with greater and greater frequency and it will quickly lose its brand new appearance. Though the pot goes through a short period of adolescence when it looks slightly mottled, it eventually acquires a character of its own and you begin to find yourself less concerned about the odd blemishes which refuse to budge in spite of the most desperate scrubbing. The pot is, in fact, very easy to clean because food will not stick to the surface (unless, of course, you burn it on). Simply let the pot cool after it has been taken from the oven and soak it in warm water for a few minutes. Sprinkle the pot with salt and scour it with a stiff brush. Rinse the pot and let it drain until it is dry. (As clay is porous, it is not wise to clean it with detergents or scouring powder.)

It is said that you need a separate clay pot for cooking fish, but this have been found to be untrue. In fact, you will be unable to detect any lingering flavours or odours on clay pots even after it has been used for the spiciest of recipes. However, if you do feel any concern over the matter, you can soak the pot in hot water adding three tablespoons of baking soda to each litre of water. This will clean it very thoroughly and even small black scorch dots can be coaxed from the clay with the minimum of effort. Store the pot as you would any other utensil. It is considerably less fragile than it appears, and unless you drop it on the floor, it will survive many accidental knocks and bumps without complaint. Do take the precaution of storing the lid alongside, rather than on top of the pot. This eliminates the risk of the development of mould inside the pot in case it was not completely dry.

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