Essential Tools

My Most Cherished Kitchen Tool Is the One I Use Least

August  2, 2018

My favorite cooking tool in the entire world is also, arguably, the most useless. I call it the Bombay cheese toast maker because that's the only thing it can make: a single-serving Indianized grilled cheese, which I aggressively dip in cilantro chutney. (Sometimes I'll also put the chutney in between the slices of bread, like Food52 contrib Annada Rathi does in her Mumbai Vegetable Sandwich, because I can't get enough of the stuff.)

The tool is essentially a portable panini press, except tiny and not electric. At one end is a square cast iron pocket in which you place the prepared sandwich, and the rest of it is a long handle that opens and closes like an alligator's mouth. The closest comparison I can find to my Bombay cheese toast maker is a jaffle iron (see below), except mine is not meant to be used over a campfire; it's too short, and the plastic handles would melt. Only a stovetop fire will do.

The cast iron is ridged, so that the sandwich emerges from its fire bath juuuuuust barely cut into four neat triangles. Give a triangle a little tug and it releases itself from the rest of the sandwich, cheese oozing out as though it is crying from separation anxiety (delicious, though!). The Bombay cheese toast maker seals in the edges of the sandwich, which means there will be minimal dripping.

Could I make other, possibly non-cheesy sandwiches in this tool? Sure. (In fact, our Test Kitchen used it to make fellow editor Brinda Ayer's potato curry sandwich.) But I don't want to. That would, somehow, make this tool less special to me.

The Bombay cheese toast maker, in the flesh. Photo by Nikkitha Bakshani

My Bombay cheese toast maker, like me, was born in India. I don't know if it moved out of India to New Jersey with me in the year 2000, or if I collected it on a later trip, but it's with me now. Both my parents worked full-time, six days a week, so our family cook, Meenamma, prepared most of our meals. She would let me stand on my tiptoes and flail this very same toast maker above my head. She gently scolded me not to eat all the Amul cheese slices, or there wouldn't be any left for the sandwich.

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“I want to eat it fairly often- like you, when I want to feel grounded again- but keep making excuses for not buying a whole second type of rice to store in my tiny kitchen on my tiny budget.”
— Claudia T.

I use the colonial name Bombay instead of the modern Mumbai because that's just what my family was used to saying. For us, it was always Madras, not Chennai; Calcutta, not Kolkata. That's no longer the case now, since we are just calling these places what Google Maps and Zomato (a.k.a. Indian Yelp) and the news call them, and I'm okay with it. But I hold on to the word Bombay in the way I hold on to those memories of making my favorite after-school snack and dipping the finished project in ketchup rather than cilantro chutney, because ketchup was the novelty back then.

I don't make Bombay cheese toast often, because this tool is hidden away in my top cabinet. I only whip it out in the times I feel like I need it most desperately—when I'm feeling far off-center, longing for something familiar to quiet all the questions running through my mind about "what my next step is"—you know, in life. Because I don't think I've lived a day of my life without thinking about my next step. Usually these thoughts are de rigueur, and they keep me motivated—until they make me panic because I don't have an answer.

That's when I look to my Bombay cheese toast maker. Making this sandwich takes some planning: I have to go to the Indian store to buy chutney, Amul cheese, and green chiles, as well as square white Wonder bread, which I don't usually have around because I prefer boules. Pain de mie or brioche will not work here; only soft white Wonder bread. This feels like a lot of work for a snack that takes 5 minutes to make, but then again, I only make this sandwich when I need the distraction. It's funny how much this snack from my past, made using a tool from my past, helps me live in the moment. Maybe it makes me feel like I can make a home wherever I go, even if I don't know where that will be.

In one month, I'll be moving continents once again, to the United Kingdom this time. I plan on taking my Bombay cheese toast maker with me. I have a hunch that once I'm there, I'll use it to expand my repertoire-of-one and make something more American, like the grilled cheese from Jane the Virgin I won't stop talking about (1/3 white cheddar, 1/3 yellow cheddar, 1/3 grated American), or the one editor Lindsay-Jean Hard's husband learned about at a Grateful Dead concert.

Maybe I'll Try It With This Spread...

The idea that I might have to search for these ingredients is both absurd and exciting, and absolutely necessary: I have to use this magical, if rickety, kitchen tool to celebrate those humble, perfect moments in my Brooklyn kitchen, watching TV and relaxing after a week at work, to remind me of my roots, new and old. It's not homesick food; it's grateful-for-my-homes food. It's my talisman.

What's your cooking tool talisman? Let us know in the comments!

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Tracy L. July 21, 2020
I have been combing the internet for a tool just like this to no avail. Help me, Obiwan. Where can I find one of my own?
Nikkitha B. July 22, 2020
Hi Tracy - try searching for 'jaffle iron', I believe you get both round and square variations, and the square is more similar to this one. May the force be with you!
Claudia T. August 18, 2018
This was such a great story, with lovely writing. What do you do with all the wonder bread afterwards? Even if you make a bunch of cherished but rarely used kitchen item is my sticky rice steamer basket. It reminds me of my mom and favorite aunt (they're from Laos. Sticky rice is a big deal), and it's just so big and round I find it kind of charming. Like a Winnie the Pooh, it's got a belly. But I haven't bought sticky rice in a few years. I want to eat it fairly often- like you, when I want to feel grounded again- but keep making excuses for not buying a whole second type of rice to store in my tiny kitchen on my tiny budget.
Nikkitha B. August 18, 2018
It’s more special when you save its use for the right ocassion :). Leftover wonder bread actually makes a wonderful binder in meatballs, burgers, anything you need to turn into a party and fry/bake! Something my aunt taught me.
Deborah L. August 5, 2018
I'm from Texas, and having moved too many times in the past few years, first thing is a big pot of pinto beans. Sort of like people burning sage to cleanse the spirits, for me, pinto beans.
PMJ August 5, 2018
I use my Tupperware mold for shrimp mousse which is a recipe from V8 way back when.
Woodrow M. August 5, 2018
Thanks for sharing. I keep a Rubbermaid jello ring mold in the garage that I only use when hosting or attending an extended family dinner, and then only if there will be kids there (so once or twice a year).

I have made lots of jellied salads and aspics in the past but now my repertoire seems to have shrunk to rainbow jello. The mold is big enough I can get 6 or 7 colours (12 to 13 layers).

I notice that most of the adults eat it but I still only make it when there will be kids. Rituals don’t have to be logical.
PMJ August 5, 2018
When I was young, we had an iron much like this. It was used on the stove top, too. We made grilled cheese with it but also sweet pies. Peaches were delicious.
Kaitlin B. August 2, 2018
You articulated something that I have always felt but never put into words about my relationship with ricotta toast. Thx for that! You will be majorly missed.
Eric K. August 2, 2018
This is pretty: "It's my talisman."
Hana A. August 2, 2018
*Heads straight to eBay* ;)
Annada R. August 2, 2018
Lovely, poignant article, Nikkitha! Yes, even though the toast maker produces excellent toast sandwiches, most of the time the sliced bread does not even fit into it the bread slot of the toast maker as bread slices are much smaller in India compared to here (like everything else :). If I want to eat a cheese toast, now I just end up using a panini press.
Panfusine August 2, 2018
agree totally.. the Indian ones come in handy to use with the Trader Joes Masala burgers - for some reason the patties are a perfect fit. it is indispensable to make a quick school lunch.
in the morning.
Nikkitha B. August 2, 2018
Aaaaah I gotta try this ASAP!