India's Whistling Pressure Cookers

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What's on This Page?

Pressure Reguators... Let Me Count the Ways

What's the Secret?

The Mysterious Whistle

The Whistling Pressure Cooker Demystified

The use of pressure cookers is growing, and even timid American cooks are taking a closer look at todays new, modern pressure cookers. I'm delighted that more and more people are discovering that a pressure cooker does an excellent job with grains, and it tenderizes the toughest cuts of meat while forcing the flavors to bloom and create a deep, rich taste in all types of recipes.

Americans aren't even close to competing with cooks from other countries where pressure cookers are the primary cooking method. Take India for example, most kitchens have a selection of pressure cookers, small ones and tall ones, and ones with big domed lids that can hold several stacked or segmented insert pans to cook a whole meal at the same time. Indian made pressure cookers are simple affairs when compared to the sleek and streamlined new models imported from Europe with all the latest advances, modern pressure and valve technology, comprehensive safety systems that represent the best pressure cookers on the market. Often made of aluminum, or lighter weight, thinner gauge stainless steel, Indian pressure cookers are mass produced for shoppers looking for a bargain.

Throughout much of the world where the expense of cooking fuel and energy is a carefully budgeted resource, the pressure cooker is the single most important piece of equipment in the kitchen. In countries where long-simmered dishes predominate, pressure cookers are a necessity. While most American cooks are still wondering why anyone would use a one, the rest of the world can't imagine how people function without a pressure cooker. It's true, the worldwide use of pressure cookers is on the rise, and cooks from Australia to Zambia are secretly laughing and enjoying all the benefits while most of us born and raised in the United States are stuck in the past with classic tales that date back to the post WWII era, and the memorable day that grandma's pressure cooker redecorated the kitchen in a geyser of split pea soup.

Pressure Reguators... Let Me Count the Ways

American cooks who use pressure cookers are most familiar with the old-style, original type of pressure cookers that have been is use, with few improvements, since the turn of the last century. These pressure cookers have that well-known, rattling, spitting, 'jiggle top' weight that lifts up and begins dancing and spinning atop the vent tube when the cooker is pressurized. Constant pressure is maintained by the movement of the regulator, which should only be moving at a sedate 3-5 times per minute if the heat is properly adjusted. If the weight is rocking madly and pirouetting like a whirling dervish in a geyser of steam, itís a sign that the heat is too high and the pressure cooker is overheating, causing a bad over-pressure problem. Users must learn to rely on their experience to monitor this style pressure cooker, watching for both visual cues, and listening to the intensity of sound from the venting steam to estimate when to adjust the heat.

Another, less common type of cooker uses a fixed weight pressure regulator. The weight looks very similar to old-style 'jiggle top, but it might be permanently attached to the vent tube, or it may click firmly into place. The style regulator doesn't rock or spin, it only rises up on the column of venting steam when the maximum pressure is reached. This type of cooker works under constant pressure, and they are extremely noisy because pressure is always escaping by venting stream. It's also much harder to regulate a steady pressure with this type of pressure cooker because there is no visual indicator. Once again, experience is needed to monitor this type of pressure cooker, and users only have one cue; listening to the intensity of sound from the venting steam to guess when to adjust the heat and control pressure.

If you are using a pressure cooker with any type of weighted pressure regulator remember to remove the weight while the cooker is in the process of heating up. When you see a steady stream of venting steam, then replace the weight on the vent tube. This will exhaust all the air and create a live-steam environment inside the pressure cooker, which means food will cook faster because steam is hotter and more penetrating than air.

The new European designed pressure cookers are completely reengineered with a new type of spring valve system to control pressure and release. A number of advanced features have added many improvements to these modern pressure cookers by eliminating all the guesswork, and that has made them so much easier to use. With multiple safety systems, these new designs are completely goof-proof and totally reliable. The modern pressure cookers are so precisely engineered and the new valves are so finely calibrated, that they create a closed system. This means more vital nutrients are retained, no energy wasted in producing excess heat and pressure that must venting off constantly. Because the pressure is regulated by a special spring valve, it only emits a faint, nearly invisible mist of steam, which means today's pressure cookers are noiseless. Thankfully, one of the many improved features on these modern pressure cookers is a visual pressure indicator, and a means for actually setting the desired pressure, which removes all the guesswork associated with the older types.

The Mysterious Whistle

Another type of pressure cooker that is common in India, but seldom seen in the US, is the 'whistling' pressure cooker that actually emits a big puff of steam and a short 5 second whistle. These Indian pressure cookers have another style of stationary pressure regulator. The user puts the pressure regulator on the vent pipe after seeing a steady stream of steam and then waits as the pressure inside builds. When the pressure reaches 15psi it then exceeds the weight of the regulator, causing a loud blast of escaping steam that lifts the weight on the vent tube, producing a sharp whistle. The first whistle takes the longest, about 7 minutes, and indicates the cooker is fully pressurized, after which the heat is reduced, and the time is counted beginning with the next whistle. These cookers operate with oscillating pressures, cycling through building pressure and then releasing it with a whistling sound of escaping steam. Cooks in India rely on the whistle noise as a handy built-in timer. Indian pressure cookers are somewhat unique in using amplitude and frequency of pressure, rather than the more familiar constant pressure Westerners find in our pressure cookers.

We have all seen interesting Indian recipes that look enough to try, but we're stumped when they say something like, "Cook for 2 whistles". What does that mean, where are the conversion charts to explain how to time a cooker that fluctuates, versus one that works with constant pressure? Why isn't this information available to help us non-Indian cooks adapt recipes that are timed in 'whistles', to a standard number of minutes?

Most Indian recipes require less than 3-4 whistles, and rely on the natural release method to finish the cooking process, but what unit of time does each whistle mean? Maybe, like me, you've wondered how to convert that whistle into a unit of time we can measure by a clock. Did you search for answers in Indian cookbook, or browse the Internet, looking for facts in Wikipedia, or a clue from Google? In a desperate search for the truth, did you pull aside the tech support guy in your office who is from India, asking him to reveal the secret of the whistling pressure cooker?

What's the Secret?

How unfair! I know many of you share my frustration, convinced that the answer to this global mystery is surely just one more search engine away. I even asked immensely talented, professionally schooled chefs -- who know nothing about pressure cookers, let alone the whistling kind -- and then queried a major university's research library where encyclopedic knowledge on any topic under the sun is there for the askingÖ but alas and alack, no information was to be had on 'whistling' pressure cookers at any price.

After all the above efforts, I came to the conclusion that there is some whistling pressure cooker conspiracy afoot. Perhaps there is some little known International treaty that is keeping this secret from uswe Occidental cooks. We don't whistle; we require a precise, measurable unit of time that corresponds with our digital-timers, our cutesy kitchen clocks and designer watches, without which we will never be able to prepare that yummy Indian recipe we found on the Internet.

And that brings us to back full circle to the timing question of the allusive and mysterious pressure cooker "whistle". Well, we Americans are noted for our persistency (among other things) and so I went shopping, determined to find an Indian-made pressure cooker that whistled. Not surprisingly, there is no Indian cookware store in my town, so a day trip was planned to the distant city of Artesia, a suburb of Los Angeles. The area around Pioneer Boulevard is home to largest Indian community in Southern California, and the busy cultural and commercial district is known as Little India. The main thoroughfare in Artesia is full of fascinating boutiques with traditional clothing, jewelry, furnishings and small grocery stores stocked with imported foods and aromatic spices, where Hindi supplants English, saris are a wardrobe staple and surly the allusive whistling pressure cooker.

The Whistling Pressure Cooker Demystified

Prestige Handy Pressure Cooker

Size - 3.5 liter = $32.07

Anodization gives a protective armour thus providing something you can cook and adding that extra elegance and embellishment when you serve from it on the table. Whistling weight valve helps you to time your cooking accurately.

Typical of models sold in India.

I found Bharat Bazaar had Indian whistling pressure cookers, and bought a 3.5 liter Prestige Pressure Handy Cooker. Getting home with my new toy -- and you can see it is a cute little thing -- I read the small instruction insert, which didn't help very much. Then I set out to test the pressure cooker with the Test Drive. I added 2 cups water, locked the lid and brought it to 15psi (its only setting). Even though I was anticipating the first whistle, it still caught me by surprise, as did the blast of escaping stream as the little cooker vented off excess pressure. As far as timing goes, this fitst whistle does not counr, its a freebie. The timing actually begins with the second whistle, which is counted as number one.

After the "show" I turned down the heat somewhat, but there was no way of knowing how low the heat should go. I settled on a flame that was hotter than what I'd expect in my K-R or Fagor pressure cookers. My reasoning was that this cooker was intended to be quite flexible rather than precise, so it would vent more or less often depending on the heat source.

I repeated the Test Drive a total of three times and the intervals between whistles varied each time, but the average is about 3 minutes. There you have it, the mystery of the whistling Indian pressure cooker is finally solved. To adapt an Indian recipe that uses whistles for cooking in either a 'jiggle-top' or the modern spring-valve cooker, allow about 3 minutes-per-whistle.

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