The first time I heard a fire alarm, it was just after I’d set it off with my pressure cooker. I was a teenager, and had recently moved from my tiny mountaintop home in South India to Brighton, a seaside resort turned party town in the South of England. After a week of eating cereal, unsure of what I could cook (not much) or afford (even less), I reluctantly unwrapped my pressure cooker.
I’d valiantly protested when my mother bought it for me, and sulked while she instructed me in cooking basic comfort foods like daal and fried okra. But two weeks into a new life with my very welcoming, very white British flatmates, I was in need of some comfort. Not to mention protein. So much to the curiosity of everyone around, I brought out the pressure cooker.
Here’s the short version: British cooktops do not have manipulable gas flames, a pressure cooker lets off steam, and we were living in the tiniest, cheapest accommodation available. As I sat outside Flat 28 in the cold, crisp evening light, waiting for the campus fire team to arrive, I felt the first inkling of what would be a long, deep cycle of shame. Not that I’d let my meal burn, but that my particularly Indian food, in its particularly Indian contraption, had violently exploded onto this pristine land of tasteless potatoes and exposed me for who I was not: one of them.
The next day, I met an Indian boy on campus—the son of a friend of my parents’—and gave him my pressure cooker. He was surprised, grateful, and promised to cook me dinner. But I was done being othered. I never saw him or the pressure cooker again.
The pressure cooker is quintessential kitchenware in most South Asian homes, and the sound of its sharp whistles, closer to a steam engine than a kettle, formed the soundtrack to my childhood. A pressure cooker turns water into steam, which then cooks anything from soups to lentils to vegetables in half the time and gas consumption as a non-pressurized pot. They come in varying widths and depths, and amongst my mothers’ extended family the saying goes, “With less than three pressure cookers, the work cannot go on.”
There are two ways to know when your food is done: counting minutes or counting whistles, and which one you use is an inherited practice—much like pressure cookers themselves. When my grandfather moved in with us, he brought the very same pressure cookers my mother had grown up with. The pressure cooker isn’t just designed to last a long time, it’s designed to last lifetimes. So imagine my mother’s horror at how carelessly I tossed aside my first, just like I did the painstakingly borrowed money my parents gave me, trading away essentials like food and books for things that looked a lot like beer and club entries, but represented something far more elusive: belonging.
England is a strange place to be an Indian immigrant, in no small part because of its bizarre relationship to Indian food. “Curry”—a frequent frontrunner for the UK’s national dish — is a stodgy, orange, sweet-and-vaguely-spicy cannibalization of an Indian food that doesn’t really exist anywhere in India. My first encounter with this oddity was at a friend’s birthday dinner at a £5 all-you-can-eat Indian buffet. The next day, half my friends complained of “Delhi Belly,” the apparently inevitable gastric distress induced by Indian food. At the restaurant I’d complained myself hoarse about the orange slop, but in the face of Delhi Belly, I fake-laughed along. Even though nothing served was, to my knowledge, even remotely Indian, I felt that same creeping shame: that somehow “we” had made their pristine bowels hurt.
All this was made worse by the fact that I could not cook. I could not show them the delicacy of cumin roasted in clarified better, or the charm of pressure-cooked turmeric potatoes, flavored with a sprinkling of fried mustard seeds and onions. It was not by my hand that they would know the pleasures of mutton marinated for days, or fat red rice, progressively softened by each steam-whistle. And even if I had, by divine intervention, suddenly acquired cooking skills, how on earth would I employ them? I had no pressure cooker.
Culture, as my social studies teacher used to say, is not a fixed thing—it’s a constantly evolving way of life. So cultural shame, then, has very little to do with actual cultural practices, and everything to do with how racism and power make you feel. If you come from a dominant culture, everything you do is correct. If you don’t, well, the accumulated ironies of everything from “chicken tikka masala” to “chai latte” start to weigh upon you.
And here’s a startling irony I only just uncovered: the most shamefully Indian item I brought to England was always already here. First invented in 17th century France, the pressure cooker came to India the same way cricket and anti-gay laws did, through British Imperialism. Selling things to ravaged countries they could no longer directly rule was the backbone of post-colonial economics, and in the late 1950s, pressure cookers entered South Asian homes. British companies set up Indian subsidiaries, and by the time my mother was growing up in the 60s, the pressure cooker’s whistle had become every desi kid’s lullaby.
Over time, propelled by growing self-confidence and hunger, I learned to love its tunes again. Today, 80 percent of my tiny cooking repertoire is pressure-cooked. I pressure-cook potatoes before I mash or bake them. When Jamie Oliver tells me to simmer a soup for two hours, I pressure-cook it for twenty minutes. I can make khichdi—a comforting blend of daal and rice—without measuring water, because I know the depth of my pressure cooker.
But sometimes when the whistle goes off with a great gust of steam, and my cat jumps up, startled for the umpteenth time, I know how she feels. There are some things you can’t get used to. Like the memory of being a tiny skinny girl in an alien land, a shrieking alarm keeping time with your pounding heart. Teach me how to lose that shame and you can have the best and worst of my inheritance: my pressure cooker.
This piece was published on Extra Crispy on 27 July 2017