(Salon Talks)

Madhur Jaffrey conquers the Instant Pot: A tour of Indian food using the gadget's many settings

The world can't possibly hold one more Instant Pot cookbook, then the master of Indian cookery adds to the canon


Manny Howard
June 2, 2019 9:30PM (UTC)

It is reasonable to conclude that the world can do without one more Instant Pot-adjacent cookbook. There are already a handful of guides for every imaginable cuisine and culinary prejudice. No one could fault you for turning away from the genre entirely. That is until Madhur Jaffrey rang the bell with "Madhur Jaffrey's Instantly Indian Cookbook."

Indian food has long been at home in the pressure cooker, Jaffrey observes. The Instant Pot is handy — as every last person now knows — because it incorporates three other functions and some useful pre-set buttons. Go ahead, when slow cooking use the presets, she says. The sautéing function is handy enough, too. But steaming? Whatever you do, warns Jaffrey — already the author of 30 books and a Commander of the Order of the British Empire — do not use the pre-set control button for rice. She's been troubleshooting the device and has puzzled-out a much better method. Just as with all her previous books, Jaffrey isn't satisfied telling you how to prepare a Kerala lamb stew or providing a fresh Chinese twist on Indian pork chops. She wants to provide a regional tour of India and tell a story about the people and places important to her. And Jaffrey did just that when she sat down with me on "Salon Talks."

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In “Madhur Jaffrey’s Instantly Indian Cookbook,” you talk a lot about how to use the Instant Pot and how to improve upon the instructions that are given in the Instant Pot, but you also tour Indian regional cuisines by using the different techniques, the steaming, the pressure cooking and sautéing functions.

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Right.

And that's a great way of using a tool-based book to describe a cuisine. One of the things that Instant Pot does famously well is cook rice, and you've even improved on the way that rice is cooked in the pot. 

Yeah, rice is a very important aspect of a lot of Asian cooking — just not Indian cooking — and we do not like al dente rice. We do not like a hard core in the middle of the rice. Which is what Italian al risotto would suggest. And so the recipe that is given in the actual booklet that comes with the Instant Pot is for rice that has a hard core and for Asians that doesn't work, for me it doesn't work, with anybody.

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I don't like that kind of rice so I had to work out a way of cooking rice that's fully cooked but is firm and the grains are separate. And the Instant Pot does not achieve that the way it is. The pot has different settings: You can make soup — there is a button for soup, there is a button for rice, there is a button for sautéing, buttons for every function. And the button for rice I do use. But first I soak the rice in a certain amount of water, then I drain it, then I add a certain amount of water — which is not what the book says — and then I put it into the pot, hit the rice function and go to bed.

Is it less water or more water than it's called for?

It's soaked first and then there is less water. So it's a combination of doing something to separate the grains, because rice comes with a kind of powder when you mill it. That powder scatters around the rice grains and sticks to them. You want to wash that off.

That's what the rinsing is for.

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That's what the rinsing for. So the grains, which is Basmati rice, get long and all swollen again. So you allow them to get long and elegant. As the Indians say: rice should be like brothers, close together but not stuck to each other. That's how Basmati rice has to be cooked.

Right. And there are even instructions in the book about how to take the rice out of the pot.

Right, because even when people make rice quite decently, they mess it up when they take it out of the pot. They just go in and plonk, and you can't do that.

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So what I do is, if this is the pot, you go in very carefully, you get a plastic spatula with the pot, you go in on the side, turn at right angles and go in, then you take out the whole bit, put it in your serving plate and then break it, either with a back of a spoon or with a spatula. Break it lightly so the grains don't break in two. That's very important.

And the spatula that comes with the pot has a very sharp edge too.

It has a sharp edge and is flat.

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Right, yeah. Well, we've sorted out the rice problem for everybody using the Instant Pot.

Yeah, we got it.

Because [the Instant Pot] has a steaming function and it has a sautéing function and a pressure cooking function, you've been able to sort of move around India and highlight certain cooking techniques. I cook a fair amount of Indian food, to greater or lesser effect, but steaming isn't a technique I associate with Indian cookery.

Well, this is the thing. India is so huge that when I was growing up in Delhi, which is in the North, I hardly knew any of the techniques that are used in the south or west coast or the east coast. Because it's as big as Europe. You don't know everything. And I am still learning, but I knew steaming existed in South India and Western India because they make a lot of dishes that the initial ingredient is rice. So they make rice noodles of various sorts, they make rice cakes of various sorts and they are all steamed, so they have steaming gadgets and people who collect old Indian utensils, which are amazing, the old ones were out of bamboo, like the Chinese, very similar bamboo or big pieces of bamboo in which you could shove in rice and coconut and then steam it.

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In a roll kind of thing?

In a roll, and you pushed it out and you eat it with bananas and milk in the mornings. It was a cereal.

And it was served cold?

It's at room temperature. Everything in South India [is] because it's 80 degrees.

Everything is 80 degrees.

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Everything is at room temperature. You got this whole roll, and you could cut it and everybody got that with some bananas and some milk, and that was your breakfast. It still is, but now the containers are steel. The old bamboo is just vanishing and wood and things like that are all going.

For example, noodles that you do by putting them in a little sort of container with different sized holes you can put at the bottom. So you turn it and . . .

It forces it through.

Yes, so there's another kind of . . . it's a kind of Idli, they are rice noodles, so you do it like that, you have a small plate and you do it like that. You oil the plate, then you get all the noodles out on the little plate and you have several little plates that you steam then, in a steamer. And then you eat them. There's so many different ways to eat them. 

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With a big fancy sauce or are they simple like a garnish?

Yeah, you could have them for dinner with a fish curry, really spicy fish curry. Yum, yum. Or you can have them in the morning for breakfast, with freshly squeezed coconut milk that is flavored with cardamom. You just pour that on top and it's so yummy. Come to India with me, I'll show you.

I would love nothing more.

I'll show you all this. It's really delicious, you can't imagine.

So one of the notes, very smart, quick notes you give is — because we were just talking about coconut milk — is how to separate thick coconut milk from the thin coconut milk.

Right. So what happens is that when you make real coconut milk and you squeeze it out, the cream rises to the top. So you take that out and what is left is rather thin, watery coconut milk. So let's say you're cooking, whatever dish it is. Let's say you're cooking meat, so you cook the meat in the watery one and then put the other one right at the end.

So it's a stewing base? Is that right? For meat.

Yes, and then you put the other one, the rich one, at the end because you don't want it to cook too much or it will turn to oil.

Right. Because there is so much oil —

So much oil in it.

And sugar too? Is that where the sugar is or . . .?

The sugar would be more in the creamy part, natural sugar.

No sugar added.

No sugar added. Definitely not.

You were talking about bamboo and Chinese influence and one of the recipes in here, which I think is for the pressure cooking function of the Instant Pot, you talk about the border with China and the influence of Chinese food on the cuisine in that region. Is it Kashmir?

Well, it's more . . .  it's where the Chinese traded. There are different kinds of influences from China. One was where they traded. And so in Calcutta, there is a Chinatown. And over the years, the Chinese cuisine and the Indian cuisine got sort of merged and they have this mixed. Like the famous Mongolian cauliflower, that they do, which I find a bit inedible but there you are, people like it.

It's not in this book.

No, it's not in this book. I put another cauliflower, a wonderful cauliflower in this book, which you must make. Because people think you can't make vegetables — I am going off the track a little bit, but there is a wonderful cauliflower in this dish, in this book. Which you only cook for one minute under pressure and it's done, you don't need to cook it anymore. Just sauté the spices first and put the cauliflower in for one minute. And that's it, you take it out. Stir it all again and dry out if there is any water. It's perfect, crunchy and perfect.

So, there are different influences because the Chinese have traded for thousands for years, and they are different periods of influence. So in the Chinatowns of Calcutta for example, you will find a lot of these mixed kind of dishes. And some very, almost pure Cantonese type.

Oh, really?

Yes, you will find those as well. But there is always . . . This is so funny to me, on the table, will be a little bowl of vinegar and green chilies. This is Chinese Indian. You will find that in every Indian Chinese restaurant. Indians have to have their green chilies to put on top, but they are soaked in vinegar.

So what's the best combination, do you think, of the Chinese and Indian cuisine? This pork chop recipe you have in here —

You're right. That's my creation, because if other people can combine Chinese and Indian, then why can't I?

That's what I was thinking, right. So I am curious, you’ve got to have anise and —

Well, it has to have soy sauce and with soy sauce always comes a little sugar. Because you almost don't use soy sauce without using a touch of sugar to mellow it in some way. So I thought, why not make these pork chops? And I created this pork chop dish, which had soy sauce, and it was the one dish that my kids took to college with them. They said, "Can we have the pork chops?"

My father did his post doc in London and he had a roommate whose name was Johnny-Tar Mohammed. He was Indian from Uganda. They got a curry recipe from his mom, using a phone booth in London, feeding the phone booth while my dad transcribed the recipe, which he had transcribed as a vindaloo. I don't think it was vindaloo, but I remember my dad making these dinners and having all the guys around and a big party around this curry and that was the dish I took with me to college.

Well there you go. You see there's always something that your family makes, that you will always want. The vindaloo, if it was coming from Uganda, it was coming from quite possibly from people who were from that region, from Goa or someplace like some Portuguese territory.

Because the essentials in a vindaloo curry are of course wine — but it was usually vinegar — and garlic. Those are two essentials. And chilies but they are special chilies, they're Kashmiri chilies. Kashmiri chilies have the quality of being very red and of medium strength, so you can put spoon after spoon and it will get hot, but not so hot that you can't eat it.

Right. The more I learned about Indian food, the more I realized dad’s curry wasn't vindaloo because there was no vinegar. There were lots of things, and there was even mustard oil, but there was no vinegar.

No, it could have been a very good take.

Oh no, it's my dad's curry, and I would take it with me forever but also Goan curries, because of the Portuguese influence, were often pork, right?

Right, they raised pork, if you can say that. There were pigs in every household. And talking about these mixed cultural dishes, one of the dishes I have in the book, which you must make, which I love, is the Mulligatawny soup.

Yeah, it's different.

And the Mulligatawny soup . . . Yeah, we don't know where it originated, but it was obviously the British, [they] like their soups. I certainly felt as an Indian, that if you don't give the British soup, they'll die, they'll wither away. They need their soup. Infusion of soup.

It has to be Mulligatawny, a lot of the time.

It was one of them. So Indians, we copied the British, so we had soups, just like you. But Mulligatawny came about, I am sure when Europeans wanted a soup that was Indian-ish, but not too Indian. Just something that he could have a soup with rice but that was sort of Indian-ish, and so they created that.

There is a whole community of people called Anglo-Indians, people of mixed race, who have been there for 400 years now or more, and it is their favorite soup. So, when India became independent, a lot of people, Anglo-Indians, were leaving because they were going home. But England didn't welcome all of them, so some of them went to Australia. This particular family that my sister knew very well were migrating to Australia and I said, "Before you go, could I please have your Mulligatawny soup recipe?" And they gave it to me.

And this is that soup? There also a Gujarat family in South Africa that clearly is a big influence on you.

Yes, that's right. Oh my gosh, the food was . . . again, these are people, they probably came as traders to South Africa. Because the British brought Indians from various places for various reasons. They came as labor — indentured labor — they came to work on the railways, they came for all kinds of reasons that the British needed them there for a purpose. But some came on their own to trade, because the Gujaratis are very outgoing people who've left India easily, not like other Indians who say we can't cross the waters, you know we will get unpurified. But the Gujaratis have been more adventurous.

Like a wanderlust in them.

Yes, they go on and trade. They have a very good sense of trade and money. So this was such a family and it was one of their recipes. And of course it depends on when you come, because you remember Indian food from the period you left it. So you had foods of different periods that have come from India into Africa, South Africa. So, they made some of those amazing dishes, which one of them, I have in the book. It's a red kidney bean dish and then I have their mango soup.

Oh gosh, that mango soup. I know one New York Times writer had it made for his wedding dinner. He just loved that soup.

The picture of the mango soup is so beautiful in the book. It's this stunning sort of golden color.

Golden orange color, yeah.

You spend a fair amount of time in the book talking about color. I'd love to talk about color in the cuisine and the place of reds and yellows. But you tell me.

And greens. Green chutneys. Sometimes you'll put them together, for example if you are making a street snack. The two colors or three colors that you will find is on top of the snack, will be yogurt, which gives it a certain color and consistency and taste. There will be tamarind chutney, which is gleaming brown.

Right. Like an ochre color too.

And green coriander chutney. Which is bright green. They'll all be on the snack.

And that color, everybody makes the joke about food and food-stylists complain that all food is brown.

With Indian food they will associate only brown.

You use paprika, not smoked paprika, to achieve that gorgeous great ruby color.

That I do in America, where I cannot get the pure Kashmiri chili that I can get in India. I can't get it and there are other chilies, not just the Kashmiri chilies, there's another chili that grows in Karnataka, which is the Byadagi Chili. It also is very red but not so hot. So many regions have their own chili. Once we got the chili, we just said, "Come on babe, we can do a lot with you.” And we didn't get the chili until the 16th century, 15th century.

Is that right?

It came into India but it then almost replaced black pepper. There used to be recipes in India that had two tablespoons of black pepper. Those you find still, in places like Malaysia, where early immigrants went and settled. So that's fascinating. That aspect is fascinating, isn't it?

So when were they leaving to Malaysia, when were they bringing black pepper with them? In the 1940s?

Oh no, no.

Way before that.

18th, 19th [century]. 

Of course, before the chili.

19th century, yeah, because they needed labor there. The English needed labor to go into the mines to clear the rubber forests. I mean, clear forests to grow rubber. That was the idea, and they got Chinese labor and they got Indian labor.

The one other thing that's in here that you make an accommodation for the American audience is goat.

Yeah. So there are not too many goat recipes, but people should look for goat because it's a less fatty meat. It's a very delicious meat, once you discover it. But you have to know what to buy if you're making a goat curry, for example. I would go to the butcher which we have in the New York City area. We have lots of them in Queens. So you ask for pieces from the neck, you ask for some breast, chops-like things, and then you want bone. You want marrow bones.

Right, where do they come from?

Well, they can come from the shank, they can come from the leg, they can come from the shoulder. More from the shank and the leg, I think, but shoulder meat is also very good. So you combine, so you have different textures of meat. And there will be bone because the meat next to the bone is always the best.

Right, yeah, and that's because of the collagen.

That's right, exactly. Which I love.

Collagen melts and becomes something else delicious.

Something else absolutely delicious, just which makes the curry, the curry.

And it gives it that great, shiny, bright quality to it. Well, this is an amazing book. About a fantastic tool, the Instant Pot, but about so much more. Madhur Jaffrey, thank you so much for joining me.

Thank you.


Manny Howard

Manny Howard is executive producer of Salon, and the author of "My Empire of Dirt: How One Man Turned His Big-City Backyard into A Farm." @mannyhoward

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