Like a lot of people, Chandra Ram got an Instant Pot because of peer pressure.
"I'm not a gadget person by any stretch of the imagination," says Ram. "I live in Chicago, so I don't have room for a bunch of things." But friends kept telling her how useful the device was, and she eventually relented.
Ram already knew how to cook. She graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, worked as a restaurant consultant for years and currently serves as the editor of the food magazine Plate. She even recently co-authored a cookbook, "Korean BBQ," with chef Bill Kim.
But because she was so busy all the time, she felt her home cooking had slacked off a bit. "I would often come home from work, and I was just throwing things together."
When she got the Instant Pot, the first recipe she tried was the butter chicken recipe from Urvashi Pitre's extremely popular "Indian Instant Pot Cookbook."
"I took one bite and said, 'This really does taste like it has been cooking all day,' " says Ram. In other words, she was hooked.
What she wasn't expecting was that the Instant Pot would help her connect with the food of her father. Ram is a first-generation American, born to an Indian father and an Irish mother. She was raised in Lexington, Ky., where she always felt slightly out of step. "We didn't grow up in a 100 percent Indian household," explains Ram. "So I couldn't hang out with all the Indian kids, because I didn't speak the language. But I wasn't white enough to hang with the other kids."
Though her mother learned to cook Indian food at home, including making her own yogurt, Ram didn't learn that much. "I never felt like I had the handle on Indian food that I should have," Ram says. While she would visit India every year for a couple of weeks at a time, she was an outsider there, too. "We were the American cousins," she says. "Everything was different and unfamiliar."
The Instant Pot gave her the ability to finally explore. Dishes that would have taken many hours or daylong soaks were suddenly within reach. "The Instant Pot makes Indian food so approachable," says Ram, "so I thought, 'Oh, wait, I can do this!' Once I jumped in, I went all in."
The result is "The Complete Indian Instant Pot Cookbook," by Ram. Despite what the name implies, don't expect an introduction to Indian cuisine. "I'm not the person to write the super-traditional Indian cookbook," says Ram. "Instead, I wanted to expand the idea of what Indian food is." That means including some dishes that initially look more Middle Eastern than Indian. As Ram explains, Bombay (now Mumbai) was a main port during the spice trade, so there was a lot of influence from other cultures. "I have a lot of memories in Bombay, and I could see the port where the Indian spice ships came in," says Ram.
Sure, you can find recipes for classics like saag paneer and chana masala, but you'll also find many nontraditional ones, including aloo gobi chowder and Assam duck risotto.
And yes, that means a butter chicken recipe with chipotle chiles in it.
"I was never a huge butter chicken person," admits Ram. "My mother never made it." When a friend asked her to make a version, she looked for a way to add more depth to each bite. "I did the most Indian thing," says Ram. "I nosed around the fridge until I found some leftover jar of chipotle chiles." While not traditional, the chiles add a fascinating smokiness and a subdued spiciness to each bite.
You might need to look beyond your local grocery store for some of the ingredients. "There's always a push to make everything as accessible as possible," says Ram, but she felt some dishes would lose their identity without certain ingredients. "There's no substitute for curry leaves," she says. Fortunately, it's easier to find many of the ingredients at international markets and on Amazon.com.
Thanks to books like Ram's "The Complete Indian Instant Pot Cookbook," it's never been easier to immerse yourself into Indian food at home.