Rice-cooker nihari
Rice-cooker nihari Credit: Eric Futran

As I type this, I’m waiting for my breakfast to be ready. The recipe I’m following, Tangy Tamarind Chickpeas, from the new The Indian Slow Cooker by former CLTV reporter Anupy Singla, said it was only supposed to take 12 hours. But it’s been cooking for about four days, and the chickpeas, which still have the texture and taste of hard, hot chalk balls, show no sign of absorbing the continually replenished liquid they’ve been roiling in off and on all week. That’s probably just as well, because the sweet, tangy, spicy sauce it started with now tastes like burnt coffee.

I don’t blame Singla for this failure, because I blatantly ignored her advice. I wanted to try out her recipes, which look great, but I don’t own a slow cooker. I do have an Aroma-brand electric rice cooker that has served my grain-steaming needs faithfully for more than two decades. And I also have the new cookbook by venerable Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert, The Pot and How to Use It, which is based on the theory that you don’t need a big kitchen or a lot of expensive equipment to cook competently—all you need is a rice cooker.

The Pot famously arose out of a post on Ebert’s blog two years ago, and the result in print is less a cookbook than a philosophical pep talk on resourcefulness for people with limited kitchen resources. It’s extra poignant because though Ebert hasn’t eaten since 2006, after losing his lower jaw to thyroid cancer, it hasn’t stopped him from cooking.

“In my opinion you can prepare almost anything in a rice cooker,” he writes. “Including a recipe I am working on now, So-Called Pot Roast.”

The instructions for my simple, two-temperature rice cooker explicitly forbade using it for anything but steaming grains and vegetables. But Ebert’s enthusiasm is empowering, and his reverence for the powers of the pot is almost mystical: “How does the Pot know how long to cook the rice? It is an ancient mystery of the Orient. Don’t ask questions you don’t need the answers to.”

The handful of recipes—like beef stew, shrimp and grits, or soy rice and chicken, and mostly submitted by readers—don’t seem very challenging. But that’s Ebert’s most valuable point. Cooking doesn’t have to be challenging, and if you understand how to make the best use of the tools you have, you don’t even really need recipes. I support this idea in theory, but I wanted to challenge the pot.

Singla’s book also developed in part from a blog. She started posting after quitting her TV job to stay at home and raise her two young daughters on the same fresh, healthy, made-from-scratch Indian food she’d grown up on. The book is similarly intended to make things easy on busy home cooks, who can simply pop their prepped ingredients in the slow cooker at the beginning of the day, go off to work, and return home to sambhar masala, Punjabi eggplant with potatoes, or chicken vindaloo. Unlike Ebert, Singla would never dream of using an instant soup mix. She also advocates using dried legumes rather than canned and maintaining a stock of fresh-ground spices—or even better, whole spices and a coffee grinder.

While the most basic versions of each appliance share a fundamental similarity—two cooking temperatures, high and low—they’re of course two entirely different machines. The rice cooker’s mechanics aren’t as mysterious as Ebert would have you believe. It spouts steam through a vent in its lid, and as the water is released and absorbed by the food, the temperature starts to rise. When it hits 212 degrees Fahrenheit the machine resets itself at the lower warming temperature, around 150 degrees, and there it stays indefinitely until you eat your rice. Sometimes I’ll eat rice that’s been left on warm in my pot for days, freshening it up every now and then with a splash of water.

The slow cooker, on the other hand, maintains the temperature you set it at, and holds the moisture inside. When I asked Singla if she thought I could duplicate her recipes in the rice cooker she was dubious, warning that “a chickpea or a kidney bean may not cook enough as they need longer cooking times and more water.” But she acknowledged that lentils or vegetable dishes might work.

That’s all I needed to know to get started on her South Indian Lentils With Curry Leaves. Halving her recipe, I loaded my rice cooker with a cup and a half of masoor dal (red split lentils), plus onions, tomato, chiles, cumin, coriander, turmeric, salt, and four and a half cups of water. It was supposed to take six hours, but 40 minutes in, the cooker clicked from “cook” to “keep warm.” I gave the lentils a stir, turned the machine back on, and in another 30 minutes they were done. I worried that the relatively truncated cooking time hadn’t given the spices time to harmonize and develop flavor, so I left the cooker on warm for the duration, adding the coconut milk and curry leaves during the last half hour as directed.

I’d borrowed a second rice cooker to try another recipe simultaneously—Spicy Butternut Squash, which called for a similarly vibrant rainbow of aromatics and spices but no water at all. It was supposed to take four hours on the slow cooker’s low setting. In my rice cooker it was ready in half an hour.

All the extra time on hand gave me a chance to actually cook rice to go with the two dishes, which were approved by all who ate them. Dinner took just long enough for me to make Singla’s cardamom-spiced, raisin-studded rice pudding, which would have taken three hours in a slow cooker. (Ebert also has a recipe for rice pudding.) All of these dishes—particularly the rice pudding—improved after a night in the refrigerator, and though I’d halved Singla’s recipes, they produced enough food for a week’s worth of lunches for two people. Score three for Ebert.

Feeling full of beans myself, I decided to test Singla’s doubts about chickpeas. But she was right, and now, after 96 hours with numerous water replenishments, I have to declare that experiment over.

In the interim I thought about Ebert’s So-Called Pot Roast, for which he didn’t include a recipe, and Singla’s method for nihari. The spicy slow-cooked beef dish is like Pakistani pot roast, and her instructions don’t call for water. Instead the meat braises in a quarter cup of oil, along with cinnamon, fennel, garam masala, turmeric, nutmeg, chili powder, and cardamom. Any additional liquid is expressed only by onions and fresh ginger, and I was tempted by—but resisted—the urge to add water. But my real mistake was letting the beef, which I cut into two-inch chunks, simmer on “cook” for too long. It immediately toughened up, and I turned it down to the warming mode after about ten minutes. I was certain this would be a waste of good meat, but after I left it alone for 24 hours, it began falling apart in the rich, powerfully spicy gravy. It didn’t rise to the meltingly tender standard set by Devon Avenue’s Sabri Nihari, but it was good enough. And it only took 15 hours more than it would have in a slow cooker.

Ebert wrote his book for people who “would like to be able to prepare meals simply and quickly in a very limited amount of space—not even necessarily in a kitchen.” It’s clear that “quickly” isn’t always possible, nor can you cook everything you want in the pot. But if the collected slow cookers of the world were to suddenly self-destruct, at least some So-Called Pot Roast would still be possible.