Set It & Forget It

How Madhur Jaffrey Changed Indian Home Cooking in the West

Her latest cookbook, 'Instantly Indian,' celebrates the many conveniences of the Instant Pot.

May 30, 2019
Photo by Dana Gallagher

Before Madhur Jaffrey became one of the most celebrated Indian cookbook authors in the world, she found herself at parties and PTA meetings in New York being approached by a surprisingly eager set of Americans. The sari she wore and the complexion of her skin likely made her the closest thing they had to an expert on India. There was one question on everyone’s mind: Could she recommend a restaurant that served good Indian food?

At this point, Jaffrey had the unpleasant task of telling them that such a thing did not exist in New York or anywhere in America. Indian restaurants in the United States showcased almost none of the regional texture of India’s cuisine and seemed to fear their clientele would be put off by dishes deemed too unfamiliar.

“At this, their faces fall and I begin to feel a familiar upsurge of guilt and patriotic responsibility,” Jaffrey, now 85, wrote in 1973 in her first cookbook, An Invitation to Indian Cooking, which featured recipes from her growing years in Delhi.

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And so she would invite those people over for dinner and cook for them. When this grew a bit tiring and uneconomical, she started writing down her recipes and handing them out to those curious enough to ask about Indian food. This was among the reasons—which also included a glowing New York Times article from Craig Claiborne—that led from an award-winning acting career to a long culinary career writing more than two dozen cookbooks and appearing on cooking shows in the U.S. and the United Kingdom.

From her very first book, Jaffrey—who was born in Delhi and later moved to London and finally New York—had a simple tenet she followed: “Indian recipes completely adapted to the American kitchen, some easy and simple, others to be mastered with patience and practice.”

46 years later, Jaffrey is revisiting that approach in her latest cookbook, Madhur Jaffrey’s Instantly Indian Cookbook, a collection of her Indian recipes for the electric pressure cooker, the Instant Pot. Jaffrey meticulously tested each recipe, she recently told The Guardian, and the result is Gujarati mango soup, black-eyed peas with mushrooms, Rajasthani red braised lamb, and more. Jaffrey is once again bringing her knowledge of Indian cooking to today’s Western kitchens.

But even early in her career, as Jaffrey sought to adapt Indian cooking, she understood that a country of 1.3 billion people wasn’t creating an amorphous cuisine, despite how it was often depicted outside the country. She didn’t want to underestimate the American palate’s ability to embrace food that may be utterly unfamiliar to their own, the way the restaurants of the time did. She also urged the home cook not to feel unmoored by a long list of ingredients—if you can add two spices to a dish, you can add seven just as easily.

As she writes in Instantly Indian, “Many of the recipes have more ingredients than you may be used to using. Do not let that worry you. I did not want to dumb down India’s authentic tastes for this book.”

Jaffrey hails the electric pressure cooker as a quick and easy path to getting dinner on the table. Yet even in her praise, she urges practical caution: “I have to stress that an Instant Pot is not a Magic Pot. It will not, in most cases, take over and cook for you (though sometimes it can).”

The Instant Pot, made by a Canadian company, has inspired scores of cookbooks and a breathless fan following that only seems to be growing. Jaffrey wasn’t the first to see the possibilities the appliance could hold for Indian food. Instantly Indian is among more than a dozen cookbooks offering Indian recipes for the Instant Pot, including the Indian Instant Pot Cookbook by Urvashi Pitre, the woman behind that famed viral butter chicken recipe.

“Of all the genres of electric pressure cooker cookbooks, there are more for Indian food than for any other cuisine,” Melissa Clark wrote for The New York Times last year. “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.”

Many, including Jaffrey, have ascribed that trend to India’s familiarity with the Instant Pot’s old-school predecessor, the pressure cooker, a common appliance in Indian kitchens. “The idea of a traditional Indian food being prepared with a pressure cooker is not new or alien to me or to any Indian,” she writes in Instantly Indian. “I was drawn to the Instant Pot because it was not only a pressure cooker that allowed me to cook faster but much, much more.”

When I first moved away from India, my pressure cooker was one of the first cooking tools I packed, waiting to be used on the other side of the world. Except I hated it (and to be fair, I don’t think it liked me much either). The shrieking whistles always seemed a bit too close together, it leaked all the time, and I misplaced the crucial regulating weight more times than I care to count.

With the Instant Pot, however, it appeared that I didn’t need to worry about any of those things, so I gave it a shot. My first mistake was being ravenously hungry when I pulled the appliance out of its packaging to start making Jaffrey’s simple dal recipe. But I chugged along, reading the manual (as Jaffrey suggested I should) before diving into her book. And just when I couldn’t take another setting or safety warning, it was done. In front of me was a lovely dal that I ladled onto rice for lunch.

Worldwide, the Instant Pot is unlikely to replace the pressure cooker anytime soon. The electric pressure cooker still isn’t easily available in India and it’s roughly four times the price of a standard pressure cooker.

But through Instantly Indian, Jaffrey has kept that promise she made all those years ago—bringing Indian food to Western kitchens with flavors that stay true to her version of the cuisine.

“The foods in this book are very Indian,” she writes. “But you may eat them in as American a way as you like.”

What's your favorite thing to cook in the Instant Pot? Tell us in the comments below.

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Nikhita Venugopal is a freelance food and culture writer.

1 Comment

BiscuitCakeGirl250 September 28, 2019
What a lovely article. Growing up in England to two Indian parents, even we used Madhur Jaffrey cookbooks. They were an invitation into other cultures and cuisines that were sometimes novel even to my city-born folks. I was so fortunate that my mother cooked wonderful home food for us nearly everyday, whilst still working full-time. I think an instant pot and a new Jaffrey recipe book might just be the perfect christmas gift!