Want to make a complex, fragrant biryani in under half an hour on a weeknight? The Instant Pot, which is gaining a huge audience among Indian home cooks, might be your answer.
When cookbook author and food editor Chandra Ram was a child visiting relatives in India, the sounds coming from the kitchen would make her jump.
There she’d be in the sitting room, snuggled up with a Hanuman comic book, “and it would come out of nowhere, this high-pitched shriek,” she said — a periodic wail like an oncoming train crossed with a gym teacher’s whistle and a mating cat.
This was the sound of the traditional stovetop pressure cooker, a fixture in Indian kitchens for decades.
The electric pressure cooker Ram was using on a recent evening to sauté onions and green chile in her Chicago apartment, on the other hand, would be a much calmer experience. It cooks more evenly and efficiently, without the stovetop pot’s noisy need to let off steam.
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Ram was making shrimp biryani. After the rice and shrimp had cooked for a mere three minutes, Ram twisted the vent, which sent forth a rush of spicy vapor with a companionable whoosh. Scented with turmeric, ginger and fresh curry leaves, the biryani was far more complex and fragrant than anything you might ever hope to make in under half an hour on a weeknight. And yet she had.
The recipe is from Ram’s forthcoming book, “The Complete Indian Instant Pot Cookbook” (Robert Rose, 2018). Hers is one of nearly a dozen Indian cookbooks geared toward the electric pressure cooker that have appeared in the last year. The first one, “Indian Instant Pot” by Urvashi Pitre (creator of a viral butter chicken recipe), has sold more than 100,000 copies.
Of all the genres of electric pressure-cooker cookbooks, there are more for Indian food than for any other cuisine. More than keto. More than paleo. More than vegan.
There are six separate Indian Instant Pot Facebook groups with a combined membership of almost 200,000. And, according to Yi Qin, vice president of products at Instant Brands, across all of the million-plus member Instant Pot Facebook communities, Indian users are among the most active about posting recipes and images.
Kormas, biryanis, dals and curries are particularly well suited to the moist environment of a pressurized pot, and Indian home cooks have made use of the stovetop cooker for generations. The electric version makes cooking these dishes even more convenient, streamlining the process and often eliminating the need for several different pots and pans. And without the whistle, it’s quieter.
Indian electric pressure-cooker books are so popular that even Knopf Doubleday — a publishing house not generally known for appliance cookbooks — is releasing one by author and actor Madhur Jaffrey: “Madhur Jaffrey’s Essential Indian Instant Pot Cookbook” (coming in May 2019).
“It’s an interesting moment for Knopf,” the book’s editor, Lexy Bloom, said, “It’s our first Instant Pot cookbook, and we are marketing it to several communities. There are people who are already familiar with the Instant Pot and want to go deeper, the people who love Indian food but are looking for easier, faster recipes, and then fans of Madhur.”
Jaffrey had never used an electric pressure cooker before writing the book, but, like most cooks from India, where the Instant Pot has not officially been rolled out, she was well versed in the whistling stovetop kind.
“I do not know when pressure cookers found such wide usage in India, but they have been firmly entrenched in Indian kitchens for at least 40 years,” she wrote in an email. “When people give you a recipe they say: ‘Cook it for two whistles,’ or ‘Cook it for three whistles,’ and everyone understands what they mean.”
For example, a typical recipe for rajma, spiced red kidney beans, will call for soaking the beans overnight, then cooking them for three or four whistles. In an electric pressure cooker, that translates to 30 minutes, no soaking.
It took some trial and error to convert Jaffrey’s classic Indian recipes to an electric pressure cooker — even those she was already making in a stovetop model — and figure out which settings (pressure, steam, sauté, slow cook) worked best for each particular recipe.
“This is an Instant Pot,” she wrote. “It is not a Magic Pot. It will make food for you but, rather like a computer, you have to create the programming that gives you the perfect dish.”
When Pitre was writing her cookbook, her goal was to make the recipes faster, simpler and more accessible to a wide variety of cooks.
“I wanted to use the science behind pressure cooking to make Indian food easier,” she said.
She tested and retested, taking out steps to see if the dishes ended up tasting just as good without them. Now she rarely browns her onions or her meats before pressure-cooking them. And instead of creating a custom spice blend for many recipes, she substitutes garam masala, which is easy to find in any large supermarket.
“My audience is non-Indians who love Indian food, and second-generation Indians who want to cook Indian food but are intimidated,” she said, adding: “The Indian audience has been my hardest audience to crack. They look at the recipes and say, that’s not traditional.”
For some second-generation Indian cooks, the notion of using a stovetop pressure cooker as their parents and grandparents did was a barrier to cooking Indian food.
Riya Patel, a 22-year-old research lead for a tech accelerator in Washington, D.C., was given an Instant Pot when she graduated from college.
“All of my Indian friends who graduated got one from their moms, so they would cook more Indian food,” she said, adding that she would never use a stovetop cooker.
“I was in charge of counting the whistles,” she said. “It was one of the worst sounds of my childhood. It still freaks me out.”
Now with her Instant Pot, she cooks dishes like rajma, lamb keema, and biryani much more often because, she said, “What used to take four hours now takes five minutes, and I don’t need to supervise it.”
For Ram, who grew up in Kentucky and never felt Indian enough when she visited her family in Visakhapatnam, on the Bay of Bengal, not owning a stovetop pressure cooker was yet another thing that separated her from her cousins.
“I always thought pressure cookers were unreliable,” she said. “I’ve seen one explode, so there was an element of danger. Even though my cousins thought they were perfectly normal and used them all the time.”
Her Instant Pot changed all that, encouraging her to delve deeper into the recipes her family in India would cook and to adapt them to her own, Indian-American tastes. In her cookbook, there are very personal recipes like corn ki subzi (think Southern-style creamed corn with Gujarati spices) alongside traditional dishes like rogan josh (lamb stewed with yogurt and spices) and dal makhani (creamy spiced lentils).
“The Instant Pot made this big part of my culture accessible to me,” she said. “Before I got my Instant Pot, I felt like I was cooking dumbed-down Indian food. Now I feel like I’m doing the real thing.”
Pressure Cooker Shrimp Biryani
2 cups basmati rice
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
1 onion, chopped
1 Serrano chile, minced
2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon Kashmiri chile powder
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
10 fresh curry leaves, torn into pieces
1 1/2 cups boiling water
1 1/2 pounds jumbo shrimp (16 to 20 or fewer per pound, see note), peeled and deveined
1 (15-ounce) can diced tomatoes, with juice
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lime juice, plus more wedges for serving
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1. Place the rice in a bowl and cover with 2 cups water. Let stand for 20 minutes, then drain and rinse.
2. Heat oil in the pot of an electric pressure cooker with the sauté function set on high, until oil is shimmering. Add onion; cook for about 4 minutes, until softened. Stir in Serrano chile, ginger, garlic, salt, chile powder, turmeric, paprika and curry leaves; cook for about 1 minute, until fragrant.
3. Stir in boiling water; using a wooden spoon, stir, scraping up any browned bits on the bottom of the pot. Stir in soaked rice, shrimp and tomatoes (with juice).
4. Secure the lid and cook on high pressure for 3 minutes. Quick-release the pressure, stir lime juice into the rice, then cover the pressure cooker with a kitchen towel and let it sit for 5 minutes.
5. Give rice a stir, then taste and add more salt, if needed. Transfer to a platter, garnish with cilantro and serve with lime wedges on the side.
Note: Make sure to use jumbo shrimp or larger for this recipe. Look for “16/20” or “U/15” on the package; this indicates how many shrimp there are per pound.