Curry up, it's time

PHOTOS: ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Singla , in her parents' King of Prussia kitchen, with the slow cooker in the foreground.
PHOTOS: ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Singla , in her parents' King of Prussia kitchen, with the slow cooker in the foreground.
Posted: August 15, 2014

THE CHILD of hardworking Indian immigrants, Anupy Singla owes her many professional successes to her focused, self-motivated approach.

But it's a pot of soggy, overcooked broccoli that turned her into a culinary star.

In December 2005, Singla was working as a television reporter in Chicago when she pulled a major story - a Southwest Airlines passenger jet skidded off a Midway runway, spilling onto a busy highway and killing a young child in a vehicle. Canvassing the scene for local affiliate CLTV and submitting national segments to CNN, Singla was stuck in the field for hours, leaving her two young daughters at home with their nanny while her husband, Sandeep Gupta, traveled for business.

When she finally returned home, Singla took a single look at the moribund vegetable dinner her nanny had prepared for her girls ("I love her, but she can't cook") and knew she needed to make a change. She stepped down from reporting with a new, family-oriented goal in mind: "To make and demystify every Indian recipe I grew up with." The small idea took root and systematically sprouted: three cookbooks, classes, appearances, seasoning blends, a new line of sauces and a fast-approaching return to TV. It all links back to Singla's company, which she calls Indian as Apple Pie - the former King of Prussia resident's cheeky and welcoming way of ushering unfamiliar American home cooks into the world of South Asian spice.

Around the world

Born in the far-north state of Punjab, Singla came to the Philadelphia region in the mid-'70s at age 3, after her father, a civil engineer, graduated from the University of Michigan and landed a job in Pottstown. Settling in KOP, the Singla family assimilated to American life, but it wasn't an entirely painless transition.

"In Philly, growing up in that time period, curry was a four-letter word," said Singla, who remembers being teased by friends and classmates for the simple fact that she was different. "I was trying to figure out where I fit in with so many different things - clothes, friends, socializing."

Home-cooked meals, however, were a non-negotiable topic. "With food, it was always Indian," she said. "I was always so obsessed with authentic, spicy, Punjabi food," a regional cuisine known for its liberal use of chilies and bold dashes of cumin seed and fenugreek. "But, outside the house, it was Boardwalk Fries at the mall and Steak-umms."

After high school, Singla enrolled at Ursinus with a premed track in mind, but later decided to switch majors to international relations. Postgraduation, she worked on Capitol Hill as a legislative assistant for Michigan Democrat John Conyers before moving to Hawaii and notching a master's degree in Asian studies from the University of Hawaii.

Returning to the mainland, the allure of a journalism career beckoned. "Coming from an immigrant community, reporter's not the first go-to profession, especially the first generation," Singla said. "But my whole life I've really loved talking to people. I love to learn about people and what drives them." This natural knack translated to work in Chicago, first as a print journalist, then as an on-air financial correspondent and morning assignment reporter.

One-pot approach

After that bummer pile of broccoli persuaded her to expand her lifelong love of cooking into more than just a serious hobby, Singla needed to develop a hook that would distinguish her approach from well-known Indian food personalities, like the famed actress and author Madhur Jaffrey. The answer? The busy working parent's best kitchen friend: the slow cooker.

The idea of building complex Punjabi curries in a device typically associated with such homey American fare as pot roast and pulled pork was very familiar to Singla, as her mother relied on the technique to prepare meals for years. She bought a fleet of slow cookers and started experimenting, sometimes preparing as many as 10 dishes in a single swoop, with a parade of famished Tupperware-wielding friends stopping over to taste-test and critique. The end result: 2010's The Indian Slow Cooker (Agate Surrey), a collection of 50 recipes designed with convenience in mind, but no compromises in flavor.

"Most Indian cookbooks out there absolutely capture the West Coast and the East Coast - you know those folks are interested in Indian cuisine and willing to try it," said Singla, who still lives in Chicago but visits family in Philly regularly. "But many of those books have not captured middle America. The slow cooker helps with that. If I can pitch it and I can make it palatable - and a lot of people bristle when they hear Indian - you know you have a winning concept."

Spice things up

That concept - talking up a cooking category that many Americans consider intimidating - has proved to be a much easier sell to non-Indians than Singla's fellow South Asians. "My base audience - 90 percent is not Indian," said Singla, who's received skeptical feedback from natives who didn't believe a tool like a Crock-Pot could produce results comparable to the painstaking process of tarka: heating spices in butter or oil to open them up before cooking. They are "just starting to come around now," she said.

In 2012, Singla released her second cookbook, Vegan Indian Cooking (Agate Surrey), fixed on healthy recipes executed without meat, fish or dairy. Since the proper use of spices is a vital element to this mode of cooking, Singla began receiving questions from readers about how to source, process, store and cook with them. This inspired her to develop her own metal spice tiffin, a countertop-friendly container stocked with staples like mustard seed, turmeric, coriander and red chili. She's also developed her own Indian as Apple Pie spice blends, like the ubiquitous garam masala.

"In the West, we tend to worship our spices and not really use them," she said. "Instead of sticking them in a jar in the back of a closet, pull them out so you can realize that you need to cook with them."

Right now, a Pennsylvania-based company is developing Singla's own line of sauces that she hopes to get into stores in the coming months. They'll go hand-in-hand with her third cookbook, Indian for Everyone (Agate Surrey), scheduled to be released this October. The idea is to examine the world of restaurant-style Indian dishes outside India, like the ever-popular tikka masala, with clean eating in mind.

Tastes like home

Singla's most high-profile food pursuit to date will take her back to where she began - in front of the camera. Monday, she'll roll out a crowdfunding campaign to back a research trip to India she hopes to parlay into a public-television-style program exploring the origins of Indian cuisine, with that down-to-earth American mentality informing every moment.

"Indian as Apple Pie - people get it," Singla said. "It's not about someone coming from India and making it seem exotic and unattainable. I'm saying I'm American as you are. I grew up here. This is American cuisine."


Drew Lazor has been writing about the local food scene since 2005. His twice-monthly column focuses on unexpected people doing unexpected things in Philadelphia food. If you come across a chef, restaurant, dish or food-related topic that bears investigation, contact him at andrewlazor@gmail.com or on Twitter @drewlazor.

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