Sunday, November 15, 2009

Pressure Cookers: A desi secret

I own and use an Indian stainless steel Hawkins brand pressure cooker (pictured above...though that isn't the one in my kitchen). The gori wife life comes with a learning curve. Since learning to cook desi, there are so many amazing foods, ingredients, and cooking tools that I have come to use quite regularly but had no clue about before. Pressure cookers aren't completely unheard of in the average American kitchen, but they are definately uncommon. However, the pressure cooker is an extremely common cooking vessel in the desi kitchen. Not all desis use them, for various reasons; "all the taste goes," "not traditional way to make X," or "pressure cookers are so lower middle class" are some reasons I have heard for the anti-pressure cooker crowd. However, I love mine and find that is it ever a useful thing to own. I'd like to talk a little bit about using pressure cookers.

First of all, they are very convenient. You can cook daals and meat in a matter of a few whistles (seeTiyan, plural of seeTi in Urdu/Hindi). Whistles? Why do Indian English language cookbooks and recipes refer to whistles? "Cook for 3 whistles." What the heck is a whistle? Well, to know you would have to watch a traditional pressure cooker in action. You add the food and water, you seal the lid, and turn on the flame. The pressure builds, then releases. To release the pressure, steam comes out of the pressure cooker's whistle (regulator). Two to three whistles for most daals, 5 whistles for goat or beef. Like so. I have an Indian pressure cooker. It is traditional. But I have heard that in Amreeka you can get modren pressure cookers that have no seetis. When I relocate to Amreeka, I will have to get one. For now, I am stuck on my seetis. So, you know how you have to simmer beef for 6-8 hours to get it nicely tender? You can pressure cook it for 5 whistles and in about 20 minutes your beef is done. Cooking fuel is expensive in the des for average families, so people save money on cooking gas by using pressure cookers to reduce simmering time. Pressure cookers are economically sound, and good for the environment since they lessen fuel consumption.

There are some downsides to pressure cookers. I love the way large legumes like chickpeas, rajma, and black chickpeas come out in the pressure cooker. They get such a tender texture that allows these legumes to grab on to flavors so well. However, I don't like the end result of how small sized daal comes out. I mean the types of daal that are cooked to a liquidy consistency and are not meant to remain whole. Somehow the pressure cooker makes the liquidy daal fluffy. I don't like the texture. So in my kitchen, I only pressure cook large sized daals which are supposed to remain whole. Secondly, though it is a great meat tenderizer, for me it ruins the taste and texture of beef and goat. The meat also comes out puffy and fluffy. It isn't horrible or anything, but I can always detect pressure cooked meat, and prefer slow simmered meat. I do occasionally resort to pressure cooking red meats as a time saver only. Chicken and fish are a no-no for the pressure cooker, as they would just be obliterated, unless the chicken where you live is quite tough. I do use the pressure cooker to tenderize chicken in specific dishes, though.

After the pressure cooker has done its job, you still have to wait for the pressure created vacuum seal of the lid to release or "fall in." This adds to your cooking time. Some people advise running the pressure cooker under cold water to release the lid. But actually, waiting for the lid to fall in is part of the cooking time of many lentils, so if you release the lid early, the lentils may not be fully cooked in the center. So it is best to wait for the lid to fall in on its own.

The pressure cooker is a necessity in "mehnati" or arduous dishes, like daal makhani. Without the pressure cooker, one would have to babysit this slow simmering daal for 4-5 hours, stirring and mashing away, and adding more and more water as needed. But the pressure cooker reduces your cooking time to 15 minutes of allowing the pot to boil, then waiting for the whistles, and another 10 minutes or so of waiting for the lid. You can't beat that.

I also make stocks in the pressure cooker. For chicken stock that would normally take over an hour, I allow the magic of the pressure cooker to pressurize all of the great flavor out of my stock cuts in around 15 minutes.

You can also use the pressure cooker for some special dishes. For a Lahori style chargha (marinated, cooked, then deep fried Lahore style crispy chicken---recipe coming soon), you can tenderize the chicken so beautifully by giving it one whistle in the pressure cooker, allowing it to cool, and then deep frying. This yields absolutely amazing results.

I know some people who use the pressure cooker for everything. Everything! A friend once told me that people are so stuck on pressure cookers in her part of India, that even their pudding (payasam---South Indian kheer) is pink because apparently milk turns pink in the pressure cooker. Many desi cooks would be lost without it.

Everyone whose family uses pressure cookers had stories of a forgetful auntie who left the pressure cooker unattended and the dang thing exploded, leaving tamaatar saalan stains on the ceiling. So, one should learn from these stories to never leave the pressure cooker unattended and to pay attention to the whistles.

Another note on the small daals: sometimes as they liquify, a tiny piece gets stuck where the steam is supposed to come out, blocking it. This will cause your steam release to spew an ugly yellow daal mess out of the whistle. I have only ever had this happen with daals, but theoretically, any small piece of something could cause the blockage.

I can't wait to use the new modern pressure cookers with their safety features and double seals. But for now, I stick to my old Hawkins quite happily. I advise all people who regularly cook desi foods to invest in one! Luckily mine was cheap over here in Dubai (and it came with a free idli tray!) but I have heard that they can be costly further away from the des.


The Gori Wife said...

Good thing you explained the whistles because I've heard you say that before and I was always like "Wha???"

I never had/used/heard of really a pressure cooker before getting familiar with the desh, and I was scared to use it for a good long while. I first wanted to buy a whole brand new one and read through the booklet that came with it a few times. Now I use it all the time. I also don't like it for daal, even channa or chole, but my MIL says that I cook everything on too high of a heat, and if I would just keep the heat to med-high, I would like it better. I'm trying...I hadn't noticed the fluffy meat thing, but now that you mention it, I never really thought about it like that!

I've never had any problems with it, no stains on the ceiling or anything stuck in the valve. I don't know all about the safety features, but I know that it won't explode b/c it's got some other valve that will open if the first one gets clogged or something. It wasn't too expensive, either, maybe ~$25 from the Wal Marts? There's not a whole lot of good selection of pressure cookers here, though, so I could only find the one brand in two different sizes. There is a Cuisinart one I might one day look into, though.

RuhguZar said...

Loved the post!! I have seen desi chefs use the Whistle pressure cookers but still couldnt get the whistle part..My family and I use the pressure cooker while making shami kebab meat, beef curries and paya. Ive also made steak in it and comes out great!
Gori Wife Bed, bath and Beyond has pressure cookers on sale these days ( around thanksgiving they always do) for 19.99 and u can use the $5 coupon they send in the mail or google their 20 % coupon.
I've used it and it works really well.I believe its 6 quarts.

They have alot of different ones.
Lf have u made the ras malai in the pressure cooker ? I have seen videos but still i dont believe how they dont break..

luckyfatima said...

How do you make steaks in the pressure cooker, Ruhguzar?

The Gori Wife said...

Thanks, RuhguZar. My Wal-mart one has a leaky seal these days, so I'll check out the BB&B ones.

RuhguZar said...

LF the first time I made steak in the pressure cooker it was using the recipe from link above, it was delicuous! now I mostly use shaan chops masala or variate it with moms ghar ka masala ( u know laal mirch, namak, garam masala and some lemon pepper)


Anonymous said...

OMG! Idli tray! I totally have to learn how to make idli. And sambar. And dahi wada.

Whistles: not sure I understood. When it says "2 whistles", that means you cook in the pressure cooker until it goes "psssshhhhh" (= whistle), then lower the heat until it stops, then turn the heat back up until it whistles again? Is that correct?

(My current pressure cooker is very Swiss and doesn't whistle, but I remember then one we had in India that did -- though I never personally cooked with it.)

luckyfatima said...

You get whistles with the heat high or even medium. You can leave the heat high, let it whistle once, and either leave it high or turn it to medium-low and get more whistles. You can cook stuff on low-medium and after a longer period of time you will get whistles. But you don't need to turn the heat down then turn it up again.

Divya Ramamoorthy said...

@ Steph - The concept of whistles is used as a timer in Indian cooking than looked on as the pressure cooker letting off steam.
Heat should not be reduced until the required number of whistles are attained. For example, 3-4 whistles for dal and then turn off heat. Or what I do with rice, 3 whistles and then reduce to medium-low, one more whistle and then turn off heat.

The pressure cooker can continue whistling even after the heat is turned off but that's completely normal.