The “Butter-Chicken Lady” Who Made Indian Cooks Love the Instant

Butter chicken recipe pressure cooker

This post has been updated to include Urvashi Pitre’s recipe for Instant Pot Buttered Chicken.

Last spring, Urvashi Pitre, a Dallas-based food blogger raised in Pune, India, posted a buttered chicken recipe on the Instant Pot Community Facebook group, a million-member discussion forum dedicated to the much-loved cult pressure cooker device. The creamy, fragrant tomato stew is a staple of Indian restaurant cuisine, but traditionally labor-intensive, requiring the meat to be marinated overnight and simmered for an hour. It can also, if poorly prepared, produce greasy, elusive sauce and dried and exaggerated chicken chunks. Pitre’s recipe, called “Instant Pot Keto Indian Butter Chicken,” greatly simplified the process: add spices, chicken, and tomatoes to the machine (onions, he wrote, would be “heresy, everyone”), put it under high pressure for ten minutes, then mix the sauce with butter and cream, and you’re done! The results were vibrant and complex, the chicken perfectly tender, the velvety sauce soft and smelling of earthy garam masala. The recipe quickly became one of the Facebook group’s most popular posts, and Pitre became known in “I.P.” circles as the Lady of Butter and Chicken.

Pitre, a fifty-one-year-old mother of two and scientist by training, bought her Instant Pot in 2012, just before she and her husband underwent gastric sleeve surgery. He maintained a blog, Two Sleevers, where he tracked his diet and weight loss with talkative good humor (“I’ve lost the equivalent of a two-year-old in weight… What have you lost?”), and occasionally posted recipes on the Instant Pot Facebook group: low-carb shrimp scampi, ketogenic green pork chili. But buttered chicken became popular in a way that none of the others had. The pressure cooker has long been a staple of Indian households, used primarily to make rice and dal (lentils), its whistle, in Pitre’s words, a “harbinger of meals.” He realized that the Instant Pot was an even more natural combination for Indian cuisine, with environments for stewing meats, cooking lentils, beans and rice, and even making yogurt.

Within months of publishing his viral chicken recipe, Pitre had landed a contract for the Indian Instant Pot Cookbook, which was released in September 2017 by Rockridge Press, the publisher of the best-seller “The Instant Pot Electric Pressure Cooker Cookbook.” Pitre’s book, which is officially endorsed by Instant Pot, includes recipes for making dal without pre-soaking legumes; homemade paneer, an Indian cheese, in about fourteen minutes; and biryani, a complex rice dish usually reserved for special occasions, in just five minutes (the secret is to add the rice in a thin, even layer over the vegetables, and then use the manual adjustment to cook the biryani under high pressure). Pitre isn’t the only food blogger exploiting Instant Pot’s potential for Indian cuisine. According to a company representative, India is among the most active countries in the Instant Pot Community Facebook group; at least twelve other cookbooks are dedicated to I.P. Indio. But Pitre, who writes with awkward accessibility and a fun disposition to answer almost any question (P: “My family hates curry. Should we still try this?” A: “If all else fails, lie to your family and say this is an Italian . . . dish and see if they notice”). It has gained the most conventional appeal. His book has over one hundred thousand copies printed.

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In a recent phone conversation, Pitre, who speaks in polished tones and British inflections, told me that his hardest-earned fans are his fellow Indians. “There are so many Indians who grew up in India knowing how to cook, but no longer have time to cook using traditional methods, or second-generation Indians whose parents cooked Indian food but were never taught,” he said. Many of them approach their recipes cautiously at first, skeptical that a dish prepared in fifteen minutes can be qualified as authentic Indian cuisine. “But, as soon as they can reproduce a dish that they grew up with because of me, they’re totally engaged,” he said. And even if traditional cooking techniques are being lost, he told me later, via email, “I think what mothers and grandmothers would be happy about is that traditional tastes are now being passed on.”

My aunt Sangeeta was sold at the Instant Pot after trying rajma chawal (a red bean stew) made on the device at a friend’s house. Sangeeta is a first-generation Indian, known in our family for her love of healthy homemade food. Its flagship dish is a fluffy quinoa, tinged with ginger and turmeric topped with sautéed shrimp. But she is a pediatrician with a busy schedule and limited patience for cooking. She recently bought her own Instant Pot and found that she made the arhar dal (yellow lentils) as soft and creamy as her mother’s in just a few minutes. Last October, during the Hindu festival of Diwali, a common time for Indians to do a deep cleanse, she ceremonially threw away her three pressure cookers, then went out and bought a second instant pot, plus a copy of Pitre’s cookbook. (My cousin Meha later sent me a photo of my aunt’s twin IPs, with a caption: “My mother’s replacements for her children.”)

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I spoke to other Pitre fans with similar conversion stories. Parveen Tumber, an Indian-American lawyer from Sacramento, fell in love with Pitre’s recipe for kheema, a luxurious and aromatic dish of spicy ground beef, peas and onions. The recipe usually involves standing on a pan and stirring the mixture for twenty minutes to prevent onions and spices from burning. Pitre’s version involves putting the ingredients in the instant pot and then cooking the entire dish for five minutes. “My husband’s mother had been trying to teach me for a decade,” Tamer said, “and then I did Urvashi’s version of the cookbook, and my husband said it’s even better than my mother-in-law’s.” Pitre, she said, “guides you through the process the way our mothers never have.”

The one-pot kheema recipe was so successful at the home of Fabiha Kumari, a Bombay-born consultant living in Virginia, that she bought a second pot and a vacuum sealant and a separate freezer so she could make and store the dish in large batches. “Before that kheema, I had never tasted anything that was consistently good made by my hands,” he told me. “I was trying to cook some version of the food that should have been Indian, but it wasn’t edible. I didn’t like standing on the stove all day.” Pitre’s recipes, he said, have made the process easier, more enjoyable. They have also turned upside down stereotypes about Indian cuisine that have made many Indians reluctant to embrace their elders’ food in the first place. “There used to be all these stigmas associated with Indian food: smell, it’s all curry,” Kumari told me. Pitre’s recipes, he said, “eliminated a lot of that. For the first time, I am happy to be an Indian cook.”

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Urvashi Pitre’s Instant Pot Butter Chicken

serves four.

1 can (14 ounces) diced tomatoes (do not drain)5 or 6 garlic cloves, chopped1 tablespoon chopped ginger1 teaspoon ground turmeric1 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper1 teaspoon ground paprika2 teaspoons garam masala, divided1 teaspoon ground cumin1 teaspoon salt1 pound boneless, skinless chicken (breasts or thighs)4 ounces butter, diced, or 1/2 cup coconut oil1/2 cup heavy cream (whipped) or whole coconut milk1/4 to 1/2 cup

chopped fresh cilantro 1. In the inner pot of the instant pot, add the tomatoes, garlic, ginger, turmeric, cayenne, paprika, a teaspoon of garam masala, cumin and salt. Mix well, then place the chicken pieces on top of the sauce.

2. Lock the lid in place. Select Manual or Pressure Cook and set the pressure to High. Cook for ten minutes.

3. When cooking is complete, let the pressure release naturally. Unlock the lid. Carefully remove the chicken and set aside.

4. Using a blender dipped in the pot, mix all the ingredients in a smooth sauce. Let the sauce cool for several minutes.

5. Add the butter cubes, cream, remaining teaspoon of garam masala and cilantro. Stir until well incorporated. The sauce should be thick enough to cover the back of a spoon when you’re done.

6. Remove half of the sauce and freeze it for later, or refrigerate for up to three days.

7. Add the chicken back to the sauce. Preheat the instant pot by selecting Sauté and set to Less for low heat. Let the chicken warm up. Divide it into smaller pieces, if you want, but don’t tear it apart.

8. Serve over rice or raw cucumber noodles.

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