The nostalgia of pressure cooker dishes
The pressure cooker, ubiquitous in homes and restaurants, became critically important during the pandemic for whipping up quick one-pot meals, broths and cakes
It was in the 1940s-50s that several indigenous brands of pressure cookers—be it Rukmani, Icmic or Santosh—first started making their way into Indian kitchens. They were joined in later years by the likes of Prestige and Hawkins. The convenience they offer has ensured pressure cookers remain a kitchen essential, and the pandemic has just driven home their importance in our lives. “The arrival of gas stoves was followed by that of the cookers," says Hemant Oberoi, chef and owner at the Hemant Oberoi Restaurant. “The cooker was first invented in France in 1679 by physicist Denis Papin. This contraption then spread across the globe, and inspired indigenous versions in India."
For some of us, the day continues to be punctuated by the urgent whistle of the pressure cooker in the background. “In fact, ours is the only country where cooker whistles are counted," laughs Oberoi, who cooks kabuli chana and rajma in the pressure cooker at home to get that soft texture.
As times changed, newer gadgets found space in kitchens—but the cooker held its own. “It comes to many as a shock that the widespread use of the cooker is fairly recent, starting in the 1960s, because it feels like it has been in our lives forever," says Shubhra Chatterji, culinary researcher and director of award-winning shows such as Chakh Le India and Lost Recipes.
And now, during the pandemic, when people are working all the time, managing household chores and work deadlines, the cooker has become critically important to whipping up one-pot meals, broths, cakes and more. “People who had relinquished the cooker in favour of ovens and other gadgets have suddenly realized just how convenient it is during covid-19. If you think of it, the Western concept of one-pot meals has always been done in Indian households using the cooker," says culinary consultant and food writer Roxanne Bamboat. Home cooks are now just putting lentils and veggies, or meat with assorted ingredients, in one vessel and moving on to other chores while the cooker does its job. Bamboat loves doing rice dishes, such as masoor pulao with vegetables, in the cooker these days. Spinach, an ingredient she abhors as a stand-alone dish, goes into mishmash recipes.
Soumitra Velkar, a food enthusiast and caterer who regularly whips up Pathare Prabhu feasts in Mumbai, swears by a pressure cooker biryani. “You put everything in a pot, give it a couple of seetis and it’s done. The rice is a little softer than regular but the trade-off makes up for it. With no help in the house, it’s very difficult to make it the traditional way and then wash three-four big vessels," he says. Meat—particularly mutton—is now pressure-cooked instead of being braised and slow-cooked. “Dhansak, a Parsi dish, or any meat curry acquires a wonderfully intense jus when made in the cooker," says Bamboat.
Newer avatars of this kitchen fixture are now hitting the market. “Electric pressure cookers will now take over. Almost every brand is coming up with one," says chef Ranveer Brar. Some innovations, such as the silent cooker, however, do leave one yearning for the cookers of childhood, with their eight loud whistles. Chefs tend to get nostalgic about recipes from their childhood that would find favour today. “Certain things in my childhood were made only in the cooker, such as the tahiri. When there was some function in the house or everyone was in a hurry of some sort, then gobhi, aloo, matar and rice were put together to make the tahiri," says Manish Mehrotra, corporate chef, Indian Accent, New Delhi and New York.
Hussain Shahzad, executive chef at O Pedro, Mumbai, recalls that at his Bohri Muslim home in Chennai, dishes that required longer cooking time, such as mutton for the biryani, were sometimes made in the cooker. “At home you can’t replicate the 12-hour-long procedure of meat being cooked overnight," he says. The working of the cooker still “psyches" him out: the vessel takes the temperature at least 20 degrees above the boiling point of water. That rise in temperature cuts cooking time by at least 30 percent.
For Brar, the best memories are of the booklet of recipes that would come with a new pressure cooker. “The image on the cover was always that of stuffed tomatoes. It had become synonymous with the opening of a new box of pressure cooker," he says. Brar calls them the original microwaves, having shortened cooking time and helping people multitask. Over time, homemakers began to take pride in giving biryani the perfect dum in the cooker. His friends from Muslim families in old Lucknow perfected the technique. “Even now there is this perpetual quest to perfect cakes and cookies in the cooker," adds Brar. in fact, one of the most popular recipes on his YouTube channel is that of the cooker cake.
For chef Regi Mathew, co-owner, Kappa Chakka Kandhari (Chennai and Bengaluru), the pressure cooker was a saviour 25 years ago, when he was sharing an apartment with three colleagues and didn’t have too many cooking utensils. It continues to be the go-to kitchen item for many bachelors even today.
“Later, when I got married, we would make puttu in an innovative way," says Mathew. A hole would be drilled in half a coconut shell and rice flour put in it. This would be put on the nozzle of the pressure cooker. Inside the cooker, there would be dal or meat or veggies. The steam would pass through the nozzle, cooking the Chiratta puttu outside and the kadala curry within at the same time —a trick that would come in handy for sure even today.
If one travels across the country, one will observe rather novel ways of using the cooker. In most rural areas around the country, wherever woodfire is used for cooking, Chatterji has noticed a mud pack, or lep, being applied on the cooker to ensure that it doesn’t blacken. This also regulates the temperature. She recalls another anecdote from when she was in a fishing village in Mangalore for an episode of Chakh Le India, when a lady cooked prawns in a cooker, while giving it three whistles. “Our mouths fell open. The prawn was not overcooked, but beautiful and juicy. All the concepts of cooking seafood were flushed down the drain," she laughs.
Pressure cookers have made their presence felt in restaurant kitchens as well. Indian Accent, with its focus on nostalgia, started using small pressure cookers to serve sorbet in 2010. “It is the most important equipment in the Indian kitchen. Earlier, chefs would turn up their noses at this household item but now it’s used across as it is convenient, clean and energy-saving," says Mehrotra, who uses the pressure cookers at his restaurants in Delhi and New York.
At O Pedro, too, the kitchen boasts of big pressure cookers, at least 20 litres in capacity. These are used to make flavourful stocks and broths. In fact, one of the dishes from the special Tamil Nadu and Kerala menu, on offer from 3 September, features a “Military Hotel style" chicken kothu parotta, a spicy chicken coconut curry with scrambled egg and crunchy parotta, served with onion pachadi. “I learnt a trick from a home chef. Chicken legs, necks and bones are cooked in the cooker for maximum extraction of flavour," says Shahzad.
Tarun Sibal, chef and entrepreneur who owns Titlie, Street Storyss and One Fine Meal, often serves the quick fix teen seeti mutton kaleji prepared by his grandmother at Titlie. “Normally, half a day would be spent making this dish in an iron kadhai, but the same result would be achieved in her cooker. This is a pressure cooked pot of goodness," he says.
Even though a lot of chefs like Brar personally prefer the slow cooked method, they can’t fathom life without that seeti of the cooker. “It has too many connections. You can find it across the country, from fauji households like the one I grew up in, where it was used for steaming cabbage rolls and dhokla, to any basic kitchen," says Brar.
Pressure Cooker Mutton Kaleji
By Chef Tarun Sibal
5 tbsp ghee
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 tsp peppercorn
2 black cardamoms
2 cloves chopped
1 tbsp ginger chopped
1.5 tsp garam masala
1 tbsp coriander powder
1 tbsp deghi mirch
1 tsp turmeric
1.5 cup onion (sliced)
2 cloves garlic (smashed)
2 green chillies (sliced)
300 gm goat leg (boneless)
150 kaleji (cut into cubes)
1 cup tomato (diced)
Salt (to taste)
Coriander (for garnish)
Whole fried red chilies (for garnish)
Heat ghee in a pressure cooker. Add whole spices. As they sputter, stir in garlic, ginger and green chillies . Cook for 20-25 seconds.
Add the onions and turn the heat to medium. Cook for 8-10 minutes until the onions begin to turn golden. Add the goat meat and kaleji. Sear the meat, add powdered spices and cook, while adding a dash of water. Once the mix starts leaving oil, add the tomatoes and mix well.
Tighten the lid of the pressure cooker. Cook for up to 3 whistles (approximately 20 minutes) or until the meat is cooked through. Turn off the heat. Let the pressure settle in before opening the lid. Turn the heat on and cook off any extra liquid, if you like. Garnish with coriander and fried chillies.
FIRST PUBLISHED05.09.2020 | 09:30 AM IST