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A tava is an Indian frying pan or skillet. Usually made of cast iron, these cooking vessels come in two different shapes. The most popular shape generally looks like a large iron bowl with a handle. The second shape is usually round with a flat bottom and a small, angled lip running around the edge. Both kinds of tavas are used to make vegetarian and meat stews, breads, and other pastries. How these things are cooked depends on the shape of the tava being used.
Round, bowl-shaped tavas are arguably more versatile than flat ones. Though both shapes may be used for the same purposes, only one side of the flat tava may be used for cooking. The bowl tava may be placed upside-down over a heat source like a dome. When the dome is warm enough, the cook may spread pieces of naan, or flatbread, dough over the dome to bake. This keeps the inside of the tava clean for cooking curries and stir-fries.
Bowl-shaped tavas may also do double-duty when it comes to cooking. Some versions have small half-circles cut into the edge to allow steam to escape and pull oxygen in to fuel the fire or heat source. The area underneath the dome often becomes as warm as an oven, allowing the cook to roast meats, steam vegetables, and prepare steamed baked goods under the dome. This means a cook using a bowl-shaped tava can prepare an entire meal using a single pan, which is often extremely practical.
This is not to say that the flat tava is impractical, just that it is less popular. This shallow pan is most often used for making fried dough, flatbread, and for shallow-frying small food items. A few of these items include paneer desserts and side dishes, slivers of meat, and buns with fillings in their centers. Paneer is a type of very soft Indian cheese that is often mixed with fruit, nuts, and spices, then fried. Filled buns may also be steamed, but some cooks prefer the dough to be brown and crispy, which may be easily achieved in flat tavas.
Shallow-frying in bowl tavas can be tricky because the oil tends to pool in the bottom of the bowl, meaning items in the center of it are often deep-fried, while the items around the edges may not get much oil at all. Cooks that want to reap the full benefits of tava cooking should typically own one of each kind so they never find themselves at a loss for the proper tool.