When I was growing up, Saturdays were cooking days at home. I’d wake up to the sound of my mother bustling around in the kitchen. Even before I got out of bed, she’d be cutting up spicy green chilis, cracking open coconuts, and blending ingredients together. Our trusty Indian pressure cooker would be whistling as she prepared a seemingly infinite variety of South Indian dishes.
The pressure cooker was the foundation of our daily meals. After cooking the lentils, Mom would add them to sautéed tomatoes, onions, spinach, ginger, garlic, and a mix of spices to make a comforting dal. This was only the simplest, most nourishing of her recipes. She was an expert in so much more: baingan bharta (eggplant), idli (round lentil cakes), sambar (a spicy soup), and chutneys made from coconut, tomato, onion—or countless other vegetables.
Despite commuting two hours to and from our home in New Jersey to a stressful job in Manhattan, each evening she had a flavorful, healthy vegetarian meal ready for us. Somehow, she did it all.
But as I grew older and went off to college, the pressure on me increased. Every time I visited home, relatives would ask, “Have you finally learned to cook? What do you make for dinner?”
My mother deeply wished that I would spend time with her in the kitchen, learning classic recipes from our home state of Andhra Pradesh. She and so many women of her generation had been taught that it wasn’t enough to be professionally successful; the ideal woman and wife also had to know how to make fresh, homemade Indian food.
“You need to learn to cook for your husband and future family,” she’d tell me. “As a girl, I spent my free time following your grandmother around, helping her chop vegetables. That’s how I learned.”
“I’ll try, Mom,” I’d respond.
I’d help out a little, but eventually I’d turn back to my laptop or book, where I was more comfortable. The truth was, no matter how long I shadowed my mom in the kitchen, I didn’t feel like I could do it on my own. The variety of dishes in our Andhra cuisine felt overwhelming—each more complex than the last. I couldn’t seem to develop the instinctual feel my mom had; she never measured out ingredients, she just knew how much turmeric, ginger, or garlic a dish needed. I felt like a failure when I had to follow a recipe step-by-step to get anywhere close.
Plus, there was the pesky pressure cooker. Whenever mom asked me to turn it on or off or put the weight on to pressurize it, I was always afraid I’d do something wrong or cause an explosion. When I did try using it on my own, the results were a mess. Often, the cooker spouted out a watery mix of dal all over my stovetop. I never knew exactly how long to cook vegetables or rice. To cope, I mostly avoided Indian food, choosing to make something easier like pasta or a burrito instead. I stayed away from those complex dishes, assuming I didn’t have the cooking chops.
Two years ago, my mom gave me an Instant Pot for Christmas. “See if this helps,” she said.
At first, I let the behemoth sit on my countertop for a few weeks. With all its buttons and valves, it looked intimidating. But soon enough, I experimented with it to make some simple masoor dal. I sautéed the ginger, garlic, cumin, ghee, red chili and tomatoes first together, and then added in lentils and water, and pressure cooked it. The dal came out perfectly done, and I was amazed by how much easier it was to use than the traditional cookers I’d grown up with. No more loud whistles, mess, or fuss.
Soon, I tried my hand at new dishes: mint fried rice, gajar ka halwa, fresh yogurt. I was even able to ferment idli batter overnight in the middle of winter, a process that requires warmth that the Instant Pot could provide. When I visited my parents, I’d jot down notes as Mom cooked. Later, I’d try making those dishes using the Instant Pot. Instead of bemoaning my lack of natural talent, I leaned into recipes, turning to blogs and joining Instant Pot Facebook groups.
Eventually I invited my family over for a meal, something I’d always been afraid to do before. That morning, I steamed idlis and made coconut chutney and sambar. Before everyone came over, I took a moment to myself and sat down for an idli drizzled with ghee and drenched in sambar. I was overcome by a feeling of nostalgia. While it didn’t quite have my mom’s magical touch, it still brought me back to my childhood, when I’d eat this dish many days after school. It was warm, spicy, and savory. For the first time, I wasn’t shying away from the challenge of Indian cooking; I was meeting it head-on. It was frightening—but I was growing.
- 1 cup split pigeon peas (toor dal), rinsed
- 2 Tbsp. neutral oil
- ½ onion medium size, chopped
- 2 tomato medium size, chopped
- 1 large carrot, chopped
- Other vegetables such as pumpkin, okra, or drumstick (moringa), chopped (optional)
- 4 tsp. sambar powder (If you don’t have sambar powder, combine these spices: 2 tsp. coriander powder, 2 tsp. salt, 1 tsp. paprika, ½ tsp. turmeric, ¼ tsp. black pepper, ¼ tsp. cayenne, and ¼ tsp. roasted cumin powder)
- 2 tsp. salt
- 1 Tbsp. tamarind paste
- 6 cups water
- 1 tsp. mustard seeds
- 1 tsp. cumin seeds
- 1 pinch asafoetida (Hing)
- 1 pinch ginger, finely chopped
- 3 whole dried red chilis
- 6 curry leaves (Kadi Patta)
Place the toor dal in the Instant Pot along with 3 cups water. Close the lid and turn the pressure valve to “sealing.” Cook on high pressure for 7 minutes.
While the toor dal is cooking, chop the onions, tomatoes, carrots, and other vegetables you may be using.
Naturally release the pressure (or wait 10 minutes and release the pressure manually). Mash the dal using a potato masher, large spoon, or immersion blender. The key is to get the dal to a smooth consistency. Take the dal out of the Instant Pot, and set aside. Rinse out the Instant Pot.
Start the Instant Pot again and press the sauté button. Add the oil and let it heat up for a minute. Add the tempering ingredients. Once the mustard seeds start to splutter, add chopped onions and sauté for 2 minutes. Add chopped tomatoes, carrots, any other vegetables, and salt. Sauté for 2 more minutes. Add the sambar powder and 3 cups of water.
Close the lid and pressure cook on high for 5 minutes, with the vent in sealing position. Wait 10 minutes and release the pressure manually.
Change the Instant Pot to sauté mode. Now, add the mashed toor dal back in. Stir in the tamarind paste. Taste, and add more water as desired to get the sambar to your preferred consistency. Garnish with cilantro to taste.
Serve with idli, dosa, or rice.