How the pressure cooker changed the way we cook | Condé Nast Traveller India | IndiaMay 27, 2021
The sound of a pressure cooker’s whistle often interjects our WFH life and audible world of Zoom calls bringing home the reality of our pandemic existence. The constant zipping between the work desk and household chores is one that first-timers and veteran cooks continue to adapt to—a struggle that is made easier by the pressure cooker.
It is another matter altogether that apart from a trusted kitchen device, the “pressure cooker” has also become part of the new pandemic terminology. The complicated emotions and feelings that build up in relationships without a safety valve to let off the steam, leading to a pressure cooker situation, form yet another fallout of lockdown life.
While the psychological pressure cooker is an unsolved conundrum, the everyday pressure cooker in your kitchen is an ally and one that comes with a reliable safety valve. Whether you are cooking for your family, functioning in survival mode, or simply looking for a comforting hot meal in dark times, the pressure cooker meal has enabled survival cooking in a matter of whistles.
And lest we forget, what seems a simple kitchen apparatus today, is one that has piggybacked on two and a half centuries of invention, scientific progress and individual merit.
Here’s a quick look at the history of the pressure cooker
The steam digester: the world’s first pressure cooker
In 1679, French physicist Denis Papin created an airtight apparatus that used its internal steam pressure to increase the boiling temperature to above 100 °C. A small tube in the lid closed with a flap was held in place by a weighted rod allowing the steam to escape when the pressure became too high. This was the first safety valve in the world and one that helped prevent the contraption from exploding. The new invention was called the Steam Digestor or the Papin Digester because it could literally digest bones. In 1681, Papin published details of his invention in a work titled “A new digester or engine for softning (sic) bones” The meal that he cooked and presented before the Royal Society in London, received great reviews as the meat cooked faster and even the bones were reportedly “soft as cheese”.
Originally intended to serve the poor to extract maximum nutrition from meat and vegetable discards like bones, roots and stalks, this device was way too cumbersome and expensive to be used in domestic kitchens. By the 19th century, digesters were being sold as “kitchen furniture” in England but they remained far from popular. Papin himself died in obscurity without living to see how his invention would translate into the ubiquitous domestic pressure cooker.
The making of the domestic pressure cooker
It was another Frenchman who returned the attention to pressure cookers in 1804. Nicolas Appert’s canning process used the principle of pressure cooking to increase the longevity of food. By the late 19th century, tinned pressure cookers in different sizes made by Georg Gutbrod appeared in Stuttgart, Germany. Yet, despite these innovations, the world was still a long way off from adopting the pressure cooker as an essential domestic appliance.
Yet, those who believed in the technology soldiered on in their efforts. In 1919, José Alix Martínez was granted the first olla exprés (express cooking pot) patent in Spain, which used the pressure cooker technology invented by Papin.
By the 1930s, the pressure cooker was making its presence felt across the world, even as high up as Mount Everest. A lower boiling point meant longer cooking times and a pressure cooker helped ease the problem, making it a treasured item in mountaineering expeditions.
The creation and success of the Flexi-seal speed cooker by Alfred Vischer in 1938 in New York, finally made the pressure cooker a household device. American and European companies started manufacturing them on a mass scale in aluminium and stainless steel. The ease of cooking and reduced speed made it a big hit among housewives and turned into a profitable business both in the US and across the pond in the rest of Europe.
The polymath from Bengal who paved the way for the pressure cooker in India
The term “pressure cooker” first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1910. And around the same time, a new invention appeared in India which used steam to cook food.
Indhumadhab Mallick was a polymath based in Calcutta, West Bengal, and his range of talents including everything from travel writing to botany. However, one of the things he is most famous for is the invention of the steam cooker or the ICMIC cooker. Its name was an acronym of sorts of the words ‘hygienic’ and ‘economic’. Unveiled in 1910, Mallick’s contraption had separate stacked containers containing raw ingredients like meat, fish, vegetables, dal and rice which were placed inside a larger container with a charcoal stove at the bottom. Water was filled in the outer container and the entire contraption was sealed, allowing the food to cook with the generated steam.
Although this device did not use the science of pressure cooking, it used steam to slowly cook all the ingredients resulting in a complete meal after a few hours. It was the first all-in-one device that was relatively portable. There are records of large families travelling with porters carrying an ICMIC cooker to prepare food on the journey.
The ICMIC cooker worked for most standard Indian rice-based meals and curries. The end result would be simple but nourishing and wholesome. It also found takers in other parts of the country. In Bombay, this steam cooker was sold under the brand name Santosh Cookers while Madras had its own version called the Rukmani cooker.
These made- in- India slow cookers paved the way for the pressure cooker that was to revolutionise Indian kitchens a few decades later.
The rise of the pressure cooker in India
World War II led to a dip in the production of pressure cookers due to the need for aluminium for the war effort in the US and Europe. Pressure cooker companies were enlisted to create canned goods for the troops. However, since the need for pressure cookers had already been established, a bunch of smaller companies started making cheaper cookers with substandard materials. Cases of exploding pressure cookers became more rampant and safety issues, as well as the rise of modern stoves and ready-to-eat meals, led to a wane in its popularity in the West.
In South Asia, however, the pressure cooker found a new lease of life and uncontested success.
1959 was the year the modern pressure cooker arrived in India. Both Hawkins and TT Pvt Ltd (now known as TTK Prestige) launched the first pressure cookers in the country. From dals to rice to meat curries and tough veggies like potatoes, the pressure cooker was the long-awaited boon for Indian cooks.
The only glitch was the nagging question of safety. Pressure cookers continued to explode both due to spurious spare parts as well as improper handling by those who bought them. A pressure cooker explosion can be exceptionally dangerous and this made many shy away from it despite its obvious advantages.
It was only in the 1970s that the pressure cookers really took off for both brands with additional innovations like backup vents or gasket release systems, pressure-locked inner lids and detailed user manuals that helped initiate a first-time user.
By the 1980s, pressure cookers were a kitchen essential across India in homes and professional kitchens allowing everyday cooking as well as bulk food prep with ease, saving on gas bills along the way, and offering homemakers a respite from the long hours in the kitchen.
Consider dal. While each lentil has its own cooking time, on average without a pressure cooker, there is the process of a long soak followed by cooking in a deep vessel for 45-60 mins. The thumb rule for masoor, moong, toor and other dals is three whistles on high heat and then the next five mins on medium without the lid, rounding off the average cooking time to about 20 mins. Similarly slow cooking mutton in a kadhai would take anything between 1 hour 30 mins to 2 hrs while a pressure cooker would bring this down to 45 mins on a low flame.
The math is simple and a pressure cooker saves hours of cooking time. And its ability to render Indian cooking easy made its success a no-brainer.
The competition whittled down to brand Prestige and brand Hawkins and a series of catchy slogans and campaigns made the race close. In the days before gender-neutral advertising, the pressure cooker was posited as the ultimate kitchen aid for a housewife as well as an emancipatory tool that freed her from domestic chores. Think: “Jo biwi se kare pyaar, woh Prestige se kaise kare inkaar” or the ad for the Hawkins Futura pressure cooker featuring a svelte pressure cooker and a lissome Mahima Choudhury and the song “Chandan sa badan, chanchal chitwan”.
Most families had cookers of varying sizes as well as shapes—like the handi, pan and kadai—depending on what and how much was being cooked. The jiggle-top pressure cooker continues to be widely used in India, despite its sound and fury. By now, it has been established that pressure cookers are fail-safe with several backup mechanisms in place.
The jiggler valve gave off a piercing whistle to release pressure, forming a familiar soundtrack across Indian households. Apart from the very handy free booklets that came with every new pressure cooker purchased, seasoned cookbook writers like Tarla Dalal and Sanjeev Kapoor had several books dedicated to pressure cooker recipes alone.
More recently, the crusading efforts of engineer-turned-chef and cookbook author B Ramakrishnan aka Ramki and his OPOS (One pot one shot) method, have made the pressure cooker a hardy contender to modern insta pots. His social media campaign and videos have brought out thousands of pressure cooker loyalists. His OPOS cookbook also managed to convert many first-time cooks especially during the pandemic with recipes that used a pressure cooker, layering techniques and precise instructions (down to the number of whistles) to whip up healthy and easy meals in minutes.
Like many others, I learnt how to cook by learning how to handle a pressure cooker. The first pressure cooker chicken curry I made as a college student ended up on my kitchen’s roof and floor and thankfully, the resultant injury was limited to scalded fingers. This was lesson#1: Do not try to force open your pressure cooker.
While this lesson has stayed for life, so has the pressure cooker. From my favourite mutton curry, boiled veggies, dals, puddings, stews—there has always been a pressure cooker in the kitchen through the ups and downs of life. Cooking rice to the right doneness in the pressure cooker is the next step and a perfect biryani, the final frontier.
During the pandemic, I have learnt to be grateful for many things big and small. And that includes the everyday pressure cooker.