Urvashi Pitre of Keller is known as “The Butter Chicken Lady,” but let's correct that. It should really be “Dr. Butter Chicken Lady.”
The social media juggernaut, Instant Pot Indian food queen and published cookbook author also holds a doctorate in experimental psychology and has run several businesses in marketing and statistical analytics, including Tasseologic, of which she is currently CEO.
Her cooking blog, twosleevers.com, is a hobby (for now), yet it receives a million visitors a month, and her Facebook group has about 24,000 very active and engaged users. Her butter chicken recipe for the Instant Pot went viral last year, earning her the "Butter Chicken Lady" moniker, and since then she's been featured on Food 52 and in The New Yorker.
“It’s been an interesting journey because I didn’t start to do it for this,” she says. “I was stressed about my real job and I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just cook to relax.’ I can’t do anything calmly though, I’ve got to become really good at it.”
The self-proclaimed gadget geek applies her passion for science and business-like efficiency to cooking. She doesn’t like long lists of ingredients, fussy cooking steps or messing up multiple pots, which is why she abandoned traditional Indian recipes and developed ones for quick-cooking, one-pot electric pressure cookers and air fryers.
Her blog followers like to use three hashtags: #butterchickenallthethings, #trusturvashi and #ruthlessefficiency, she says, and they religiously follow her Facebook Live PowerPoint presentations about lentils and “science-y videos” on how to not burn things.
“I love to teach,” Pitre says. “Look, I do statistics for a living. How many people understand the longitudinal time series model -- nobody! So I have to explain that to my clients in a way that doesn’t make them feel stupid.”
But what makes Pitre so successful is not just her cooking knowledge, heavily tested recipes and get-it-done drive. It’s her very human and approachable style, her humor, her life struggles and her understanding of what people really need. And she offers so much more than butter chicken.
“At the end of the day, my job is to empower you to be able to cook, not to be dependent on my recipes," she says. "That’s not a sustainable solution for anybody.”
Make it 'really good'
Pitre currently runs her hobby-turned-empire from her home in Keller, where she lives with her husband, Roger Gorman, 18-year-old adopted son Alex and dog Gracie. She also has a 28-year-old son, Mark.
She came to the United States 30 years ago from India with two suitcases, $20 and the promise of a scholarship to Texas Christian University.
“It was like my first time away from home and by golly, when I went, I went, like thousands of miles away,” she says. “I always say the only family I have here is what I gave birth to, married and adopted.”
She’s been a single, working mother who didn’t have time to cook and whose young son at the time yelled “PIZZA!” every time the doorbell rang.
She has rheumatoid arthritis, which makes it difficult to chop vegetables or open a jar of sauce.
And she’s struggled with her weight, which prompted her (and her husband) to get gastric sleeve surgery four years ago -- hence, her blog's name. They now eat mostly a low-carb, ketogenic diet, which means high fat, moderate protein and few calories, and together have lost about 175 pounds.
“My husband’s take is: ‘We can barely eat, so what difference does it make,’ but my thing is, ‘We can barely eat, so everything we eat has to be really, really good.”
Learning to cook
Pitre was born to a military family in New Delhi, India. They moved every few years within India, and she had to learn multiple languages. "In India, when you move, you don't speak the language. Every state has a different language. The instruction was in English, but you don't know what the kids are saying."
Her mother was a major in the army, which Pitre says was quite unusual. "She was a woman way ahead of her time," she says. Her mother was insistent that her children learn to cook, which also was not common.
"From the time I was 14, I was expected to cook dinner for everybody," Pitre says. "And I hated it. All my friends were out having a good time and she was making me cook. Her thing was, you don't know what life is going to hand you, and you guys might not be able to afford what we do, times change, you have to be self-sufficient."
After moving to the United States, there were periods in Pitre's life when she did not have time to cook. "I was living in Dallas and working in New York, for an ad agency, and there's no way you can do all that and be a single mother and cook," she says. "A lot of the reasons I cook like this is that I don't have time. It can't be an elaborate process."
Special needs and budgets
Rheumatoid Arthritis influences Pitre's easy-as-possible cooking style, which has drawn others with conditions like fibromyalgia and multiple sclerosis. "With the butter chicken recipe, you don't have to cut anything," she says. "And if your hands are swollen or whatever, you can just throw things in."
Pitre uses all fresh ingredients except for vegetables, which she buys frozen so that it's more convenient and there's no chopping required.
Her followers also include many parents of children with autism, sensory issues and food allergies.
"Many parents of children with autism have written to me and said that they are shocked that their children eat this food," she says, "but I honestly believe that they are super-tasters. They need more flavor, not less."
And parents of children with food allergies want their kids to explore flavors and dishes from other cuisines, but eating out at Indian, Thai or Vietnamese restaurants is not an option for those allergic to nuts and shellfish.
Another reason people cook? Money, or lack thereof. Many of Pitre's followers are young families on budgets who do not have money to waste. That's why Pitre tests her recipes multiple times to make sure they work, so no one has to throw anything out. "I also have folks who live in Alaska," she says. "Stuff's expensive out there; you can't just play."
A "science-y video":
On gadgets and science
Pitre's kitchen is a home cook's dream, with racks of spices, multiple Instant Pots and air fryers, and even permanent lighting and camera mounts for her social media videos.
But her pantry staples are carefully edited down to include seven whole spices and five or six lentils and grains. "If you buy those you can make all 55 things in the cookbook," she says of her Indian Instant Pot Cookbook. She buys whole spices because they last longer and you can combine them in different cuisines, such as Ethiopian or Lebanese.
"I always have gochujang, Chinese black bean paste, soy sauce, cooking wine, all these things that are umami flavored and penetrate meat," she says.
She and Roger love gadgets, from spiralizers to immersion blenders, but the key is saving time.
"There are dishes in India that would take you hours to make, like this onion masala," she says. "I experimented and figured out that you can just dump it in the pressure cooker and walk away and come back 10 minutes later. Stuff like that, that turns me on."
Instant Pot Now and Later Keto Indian Butter Chicken
1 (14-ounce) can diced tomatoes (do not drain)
5 or 6 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons minced ginger
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon paprika
2 teaspoons garam masala (divided use)
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon salt
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs
4 ounces butter, cut into cubes, or 1/2 cup coconut oil
1/2 cup heavy (whipping) cream or full-fat coconut milk
1/4 to 1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
In the inner cooking pot of the Instant Pot, add the tomatoes, garlic, ginger, turmeric, cayenne, paprika, 1 teaspoon of garam masala, cumin and salt. Mix thoroughly, then place the chicken pieces on top of the sauce.
Lock the lid into place. Select Manual or Pressure Cook, and adjust the pressure to High. Cook for 10 minutes.
When the cooking is complete, let the pressure release naturally. Unlock the lid. Carefully remove the chicken and set it aside.
Using an immersion blender in the pot, blend together all the ingredients into a smooth sauce. Let the sauce cool for several minutes.
Add the butter cubes, cream, remaining teaspoon of garam masala and cilantro. Stir until well incorporated. The sauce should be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon when you're done.
Remove half of the sauce and freeze it for later, or refrigerate for as long as three days. Put the chicken back in and heat through, breaking up into smaller pieces.
Serve over rice or raw cucumber noodles.
Makes 4 servings.
SOURCE: Urvashi Pitre, twosleevers.com
CORRECTION: Feb. 20, 2018 at 9:33 a.m.: A previous version of this story transposed the names and ages of Pitre's sons.