Raised as a third-culture kid with Sindhi heritage in Dubai, I didn’t properly begin cooking Indian food until my late 20s. My husband professed that his love for Indian food was at least as great, if not more than, his love for me. I wasn’t completely inept in the kitchen; my creamy, well-seasoned hummus was “seriously impressive” (his words), and I could make a perfectly crispy za’atar-spiced zucchini burger. But Indian food, with all its complex flavors and textures, had remained, for the most part, uncharted territory.
History has put some distance between me and Sindhi cuisine. Sindhis are people with roots in the Sindh region of modern-day Pakistan, and my grandparents fled Pakistan to India during Partition in 1947. Then my parents resettled in Dubai in the ’70s, like droves of Indian immigrants to the UAE at the time. My father worked in sales and then sold audio cassettes, and the city offered small businesses the kind of opportunities that were simply not available back home in Mumbai. As an adult, I could never pinpoint with absolute certainty what parts of Sindhi culture and cooking my parents brought to the UAE, what pieces I had absorbed, and what got left behind. Especially after my mother’s passing, I feared I had lost access to her methods and recipes, including those that might have been passed down through the generations.
During my first few attempts at Indian food, and specifically my native Sindhi recipes, I realized that I had absorbed more than I gave myself credit for. But still I found something missing; I was longing for the comfort of familiar kitchen tools like those my mother used, such as a wooden churner, a “mandyara” in my native Sindhi (or “mathani” in Hindi). With its long handle and thick, asterisk-shaped base, the tool is used in Indian kitchens around the world to churn thick cream into butter and prepare curries, lentils, and stews with the perfect consistency.
I hadn’t thought about the tool in years, but the memory was there in my brain: My mother using a mandyara to prepare her mutton kheema (minced lamb) cooked in onion and tomato gravy, a recollection that immediately summons the strong aroma of cardamom. It was the same way my father often speaks of summer afternoons from his childhood, spent on the veranda of his family home in India, watching my grandmother roll a wooden mandyara between her palms to churn yogurt into frothy lassi.
I knew I needed a mandyara back in my life, and asked my father to pick one up while visiting family in Mumbai. I was surprised by how instinctively my hands knew what to do the first time I used it to prepare sai bhaji (spinach cooked with split chickpeas); I might have not realized it then, but I’d been learning from my mother all those years. The gentle swish-swish of the churner felt far more soothing than the rude whizz of any electric blender, and using the mandyara gave me confidence that I wouldn’t destroy the ingredients as I did with an immersion blender. But more than that, I could take my time with the dish in a way that allowed me to appreciate each step, every aroma and texture, piecing together the recipe ingredient by ingredient.
Why you need a mandyara in your kitchen
After experimenting with all sorts of electric blenders and mixers, I’ve found that nothing matches up to the functionality of a mandyara. Dal, sai bhaji, khichdi (rice cooked with some combination of lentils, vegetables, and greens), and pav bhaji (mashed mixed vegetables in thick gravy) all turn out better.
The secret lies in the superior control that a wooden churner gives you, ensuring you reach exactly the consistency you’re after without crushing ingredients to a smooth puree — something that can quickly happen with an immersion or countertop blender should you get distracted for a second. That kind of precision is important for dishes where you want the ingredients to integrate while maintaining some chew; mushy lentils or mashed peas wouldn’t be the same without their comforting texture. Of course, you could also use a mandyara to whip your dish into a totally smooth puree or sauce, though it will take a bit of a forearm workout.
What I love most about the mandyara, though, is that you can’t walk away from it like you can with a blender. The very act of using both hands to patiently churn forces you to slow down and observe. Standing over dal or khichdi, the consistency of the dish changes as ingredients meld into each other. Aromas release when spices and condiments begin to alchemize. It’s almost therapeutic and entirely impossible with a blender.
The mandyara does its job in a way that’s simple and perfectly sufficient, something I’m slowly learning to do in any kitchen task. It has instilled in me a newfound appreciation for the process of cooking Indian food, waking me up to the journey long before I reach my destination. It no longer feels like an inconvenience to monitor a slow-cooking chicken curry on the stove or wait for the aroma of cumin to fill my kitchen when my masala is ready.
Like many time-tested kitchen tools, the ideal mandyara is both durable and affordable. While stainless steel versions are available today, traditionally the churner was made of wood (my mother’s was probably made of sheesham wood, also known as Indian rosewood), which is more satisfying to the touch and seems to move more fluidly. Mandyaras come in various sizes and dimensions to fit all hands comfortably, so there’s a model for every cook.
How to use a mandyara to mash and churn
Whether you’re working with lentils, curry, or stew, start with ingredients that are at least 90 percent cooked through. You can still simmer the dish for a few minutes as a final step after using the mandyara, but most of the cooking should be done before you muddle and churn. The tool is also most effective when the dish is still hot, when it’s easier for ingredients to integrate.
Check that the base is in the center of the pot, fully submerged in the dish, then roll the handle back and forth between your palms in a quick, continuous motion. Slowly make your way around the pot while rolling the handle, until the ingredients are blended to your satisfaction. Keep your movements small, allowing your forearms and wrists to do most of the work.
If it’s your first time, expect to spill a bit around the pot; with a bit of practice, you’ll find the right speed. It’s best to place the pot on a surface where it remains steady, or use a trivet.
If you need to mash lentils and rice in dal khichdi, mash and mix potatoes and carrots in pav bhaji, or squish any other ingredients that might have settled at the edges of a stockpot, use the mandyara as a muddler. Grip the handle and press down gently, making your way around the pot. Alternate between muddling and churning until you’re happy with the results.
To clean, rinse the mandyara with warm water and soap. Use a cleaning brush with bristles that can remove any food particles stuck in the corners. Dry with a dish towel and allow to air-dry completely before putting it away.
Where to buy a mandyara or mathani
In India, you can find a mandyara in most stores selling cookware and kitchen utensils. In the United States, you might find it at a store that specializes in Indian cookware and tools. You could also order it online on Amazon or Etsy.
Natasha Amar is a Dubai-based writer, guidebook author, and photographer covering travel, food, culture, mental health, lifestyle, and personalities. Her work has appeared in Lonely Planet, Afar, National Geographic Traveler UK, EatingWell, Whetstone Magazine, Marriott Bonvoy Traveler, Forbes Travel Guide, Waldorf Astoria Magazine, Departures, SilverKris, and other publications. You can follow her on Instagram @thebohochica.