The Drum before the Whistle
Updated: Dec 13, 2020
The pressure cooker, or the “cooker”, as it is often referred to, is a must-have in any self-respecting South Indian kitchen. I don’t know much about other kitchens, and so I am not going there. But really, serious cooking cannot happen in a South Indian kitchen without a “cooker” and its ear piercing whistles. “No more than three, or at most four whistles, otherwise your dhall will be mush,” is the advice that’s often dished out by experienced cookers…uh…I mean cooks. Putting your “cooker” on the stove signals the beginning of cooking for the day. Call up a South Indian girlfriend as lunch or dinner time approaches, and ask her if she has started cooking, and it is highly likely that she is going to say, “I’ve just put the “cooker” on the stove.” When I am visiting Chennai, the whistle of the “cooker” in neighboring apartments often serves as the alarm for me in the morning.
I am really not sure when the pressure cooker as we know it today whistled its way into the Singaporean or Malaysian South Indian kitchen. However, I do remember my grandfather’s “drum”, which I think he designed for himself, and this must have been before the pressure cooker. It was a cylindrical container, long enough to hold two or three stainless steel, or as they were known in those days “ever silver” small pots or pans, or vessels, as they are sometimes referred to in an Indian kitchen, containing rice, dhall, and vegetables. My grandfather worked almost all his life on plantations or “estates” as they were known in Malaysia. While my grandmother used to live with him in the estates in the early days, she stopped doing that towards the end of his career. So he would spend all week in the estate, and come back home, which was by then in the town of Petaling Jaya of Kuala Lumpur, for the weekend. So he was pretty much left to his own devices during the week to come up with his meals, and the "drum" was one of his “devices” for cooking.
A visit to the tin smith during his weekend trips home was invariable, either to make a new “drum”, or to repair the old one which would sometimes end up with a hole in it. I was always fascinated with his fixation with this “drum”. As a kid running around while my grandparents conversed, I would hear them talking about the wonders of the “drum”. In fact, something he said in Tamil to my grandmother whose name was Padma, stuck in my mind, and the translation of that is, “Wonderful! Everything cooks so well Padma that you can’t tell what it is.” This came to my mind today because I had left the “cooker” on for one too many whistles, and my dhall came out a tad mushy. Not quite to my taste, but he would have loved it. Bless his soul.