Time is probably an illusion, but tell that to a person stirring a large vessel full of milk to make a small amount of rabdi and suddenly the illusion seems real. A lot of soul food around the world is linked with one-pot meals that ask little of the cook apart from wonderful ingredients and the virtue of patience in the form of time.
Almost all civilisations throughout history have had dishes that require one to simply assemble all components in a pot, pit or chamber, covered earnestly and then subjected to slow meticulous heat in the form of embers, heated stones, slow stoked fires or even warm smoke. In all probability, the earliest form of cooked food that humans ate would have come from unlucky plants, tubers and animals cooked in the embers of wildfires. It isn’t hard to imagine the jump from scavenging such food to deliberately recreating the effect after we learnt to manipulate fire.
The slow action of heat has many benefits to the food you cook. Within the confines of sealed containers, flavour and nutrients are retained better.
The gradual application of heat breaks down hard root vegetables while retaining those easily lost earthy aromas when subjected to rapid boiling. Proteins in meats and lentils break down more and much better, a term referred to as denaturing of proteins — a gentle unwinding of protein molecules without compromising the structure or texture of the product itself.
The modern-day adaptation of slow cooking is best experienced in a device known as, well a Slow Cooker. Patented by a prolific American inventor Irving Naxon, the Naxon Beanery All-Purpose Cooker was a device inspired from his grandmother’s story, from back in Lithuania, about a traditional Jewish stew called Cholent. It was made with a mixture of beans, root vegetables and a little meat placed into a crock to cook in the slowly fading heat of community bakery ovens that had been turned off at the end of the day.
Nearly 80 years later, and a world away, the slow cooker has the potential to adapt beautifully to Indian sensibilities.
Although not used as widely in India as its antithesis, the pressure cooker, the slow cooker is a wonderful device that can help recreate many stalwarts of Indian cuisines. With just a little pre-preparation, one can dunk the required ingredients into the device, shut the lid and allow it to cook slowly over a course of anywhere from 4 to 8 hours, with minimal intervention.
Be it khichdi/Pongal (a cracked wheat Fada ni Khichdi maybe), divine home-style, bone -on meat curries, slow-simmered lentils (Dal Makhni anyone?) or even a traditional payasa/ kheer (a Pal Payasa fit for a royal repast), the slow cooker is a convenient kitchen tool that requires hardly any electricity or even effort from the cook.
The end product is one that harks to our need for heritage infused slow-cooked food from a time when things progressed more slowly and time wasn’t a commodity.
(The author is a chef and co-founder of a delivery-only kitchen specialising in Gourmet Asian cuisine based out of Mumbai. He enjoys making comforting sandwiches and serious ramen.)