Taste of Life: When Punekars warmed up to introduction of Icmic cooker
The Icmic cooker was basically designed like a tiffin carrier that was filled with raw grains and lowered into a larger cylinder with a charcoal stove above
A couple of months ago, a friend of mine told me about one of his neighbours who wanted to give away his old books. The gentleman, Mr Deshmukh, was moving to Bengaluru to be with his grandson. That day, while browsing through the stack of yellowed books, Deshmukh showed me a diary that belonged to his grandfather. He was kind enough to let me photograph some pages from it.
The grandfather, CV Deshmukh, had started working with the agriculture department in Pune in 1907. His job was to assist surveyors and cartographers employed by the department. The job entailed extensive touring in the Bombay Presidency.
No wonder, Deshmukh’s diary comprises pages full of expenditures incurred on food during his official tours. He would purchase fruits, vegetables, and pulses and later get the money reimbursed from the department. The diary suggests that the touring party would be accompanied by a cook who could rustle up simple dishes for the entourage. The European sahib would be provided with a separate cook. They spent their nights in tents. Two bullock carts would accompany them to carry the provisions.
One of the entries from the diary is rather interesting. In May 1915, Deshmukh made a purchase for ₹5 which was quite a princely sum then. According to a terse note in his diary, a rare commotion was witnessed outside a shop in Shukrawar Peth in Pune. The said shop, Bhide Bandhu Bhandiwale (Bhide Bros.), was famous for the utensils it sold.
The Bhide family originally owned a small workshop where they manufactured brass and bronze utensils. It was said that the patriarch of the family, Ganesh Vaman Bhide, was a close associate of Ganesh Vasudeo Joshi, alias Sarvajanik Kaka, who was one of the pioneers of small-scale industrialisation in Pune.
After starting the workshop in the later 1880s, Bhide opened a shop to sell utensils. He soon found it difficult to manage the workshop and decided to shut it down. He, however, continued with the shop. The utensils for the shop were then sourced from Satara and Sangli. It was one of the most popular shops in Pune selling kitchenware and the newly emerging middle-class population considered it a status symbol to shop at the Bhides.
That day, in May 1915, a new product had been made available by the Bhides. The product was being advertised in local newspapers like “Kesari” and “Jnanaprakash” for over a week. Those crowding the shop were rich and middle-class men and the product in question was an Icmic cooker.
The cooker was in no way a rudimentary object. It was a one-stop way to cook everything for a meal – rice, dal, and vegetables. The Icmic cooker was basically designed like a tiffin carrier that was filled with raw grains and lowered into a larger cylinder with a charcoal stove above. Water was placed in the outer chamber, the stove lit and the whole device was sealed. The steam from boiling water created the effect of a slow cooker. Icmic cookers were not pressurised and hence, there was no fear of an explosion.
The inside vessels were of different shapes. Some were cylindrical, others shallow. They could be used in any permutation and combination, depending on the food to be cooked. The vessels fit perfectly in the main cooker and could be carried around like a bucket. The inside vessels and the cooker itself were made of brass. A few decades later, brass made way for “german steel”.
The cooker first seems to have made an entry into the Pune market in 1914. A small piece of news appearing in “Kesari” mentions that “new cooking equipment operating on steam and brought from Calcutta” has been made available in Pune. More details are not provided.
However, ads for Icmic cookers began to appear routinely after 1915. The cooker was a boon for wealthy bachelors coming to Pune from faraway places like the Central Provinces. Most of them were the sons of landlords and could afford to rent rooms in the peths of the city. They would fill the cooker with dal, and vegetables and go to their colleges leaving the food to cook slowly. The cooker would have their meals ready to be eaten when they returned. All they had to do was bake some chapatis.
Caste decided who cooked for whom and who ate with whom. Rigid societal rules meant one was usually forced to either cook for oneself, or look out for a cook from one’s own caste.
Men like Deshmukh, who were required to travel extensively, benefited from the cooker. The Icmic cooker was a faithful companion of government officers from the agriculture and the survey departments. Several agricultural journals feature ads for the product. Families would carry it on pilgrimages. They were no longer required to carry several utensils.
Icmic cooker was hailed by nationalist leaders as well because it was “swadeshi”.
The cooker was most suited to cooking dals and curries, and hence was a hit in Bengali homes. In Pune and elsewhere in Maharashtra, where drier curries were a norm, women initially found it difficult to utilise the cooker appropriately.
Nevertheless, it soon became a norm for fathers of brides to gift the cooker to their daughters. Whether or not the cooker would be used in her husband’s home would depend on her mother-in-law’s acceptance of modern equipment.
The Icmic cooker was an invention of Indumadhab Mallick who was an Indian polymath. He was a philosopher, lawyer, physician, botanist, entrepreneur, traveller, author, and social reformer.
Born in 1869, he studied Physics, and later, Law, Zoology, and Botany. He taught Logic, Philosophy, and Chemistry.
In 1904-05, he travelled to Imperial China, where steam cooking attracted his attention. He returned to Calcutta, became an MD from the University of Calcutta, and pioneered the autovaccine method of inoculation in India. Around the same time, he developed the first prototype of the Icmic cooker.
While Mallick is credited with designing and popularising the cooker, Pragyasundari Devi’s contribution to the invention is often neglected. Pragyasundari was a food writer, poet, essayist, and editor who incorporated hybrid Anglo-Indian cookery in popular writings. Her Bangla cookbook “Amish o Niramish” is considered one of the best Indian cookbooks ever written.
It was she who helped Mallick design the shape of the containers for the cooker. She would test the prototypes with her recipes, making elaborate notes of cooking times.
After the pan-India success of Icmic cooker, several models inspired by the Icmic cooker stormed the market in the mid-twentieth century. Santosh cooker, and Rukmani cooker were displayed with pride in kitchens.
Icmic cookers could still be found in some kitchens in India. And, of course, in old diaries of people like Mr Deshmukh.
Chinmay Damle is a research scientist and food enthusiast. He writes here on Pune’s food culture. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org