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'The Indian Slow Cooker' debunks all kinds of Indian food myths

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Curry is not a spice.

That’s the first thing Anupy Singla, author of The Indian Slow Cooker: 70 Healthy, Easy, Authentic Recipes, teaches her cooking students.

It’s one of many misconceptions about traditional Indian cooking that Singla aims to debunk, along with the idea that naan is a daily staple and that Indian food is labor-intensive and unhealthy. She'll be in Minneapolis on Tuesday, May 7, for a book signing at the Eastside Food Co-op from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and for a cooking class at Coastal Seafoods from 6 to 8 p.m.

Singla has grappled with these misconceptions since her youth. She grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, where “people didn’t really understand who Indians were or what we were all about,” she says. “It was embarrassing to watch my mother go to a potluck and take rice that was yellowed from turmeric. No one had heard of turmeric that I knew of in my school. I just wanted to be like everybody else, eating the same foods, and bringing hot dogs to potlucks. My mom was not that mom.”

Singla’s mother worked outside the house, yet still had to figure out how to have a hot meal on the table for the family every evening -- a conundrum, since Indian food is best when cooked on a low flame for several hours, untouched. Enter the slow cooker, which her mother found out about from a coworker. The modern-day appliance is surprisingly similar to an Indian cooking style called dum pukht, where ingredients are placed in a clay pot that gets sealed with dough. When the food is cooked through, the seal is broken and the food is served.

Singla received her first slow cooker from her mother as a freshman in college, and became interested in expanding her culinary repertoire while working on a graduate degree in Asian studies at the East-West Center in Hawaii. Living in an international dorm exposed her to other students exploring their culinary roots. “It made me embrace who I was,” she says. “You can really express yourself through food.”

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The Indian Slow Cooker was born because Singla became a busy professional but still wanted to make authentic Indian food -- ideally without all the fuss. While there were cookbooks on Indian food and cookbooks on slow cookers, she couldn’t find one that combined both styles. The first edition was published in 2010. The second edition followed eight years later.

While the cookbook’s 70 recipes include recognizable favorites like Black Dal, Chicken Tikka Masala, and Indian Hummus, Singla also offers up more complex dishes like Lamb Biryani and Pakistani “Old Clothes” Beef Curry.

She also gives readers an education in the flavors, ingredients, and tools that bring Indian cooking to life, starting with a crash course in 31 spices used in Indian cooking, which range from the familiar (saffron, turmeric powder) to the lesser known (asafetida powder, kokum). “When you use the essential, real spices to make authentic homestyle Indian food, often people who think they don’t like Indian food actually love it,” she says.

Because legumes are such a big part of Indian meals, she breaks down the varieties of commonly used lentils, beans, and peas and includes instructions on their proper storage, cleaning, and preparation. Finally, she differentiates between the types of bread served at Indian tables. While naan is among them, it isn’t the standard served at most homemade meals: Singla prefers roti, a flatbread that’s almost as thin as a tortilla, in part because it’s healthier than high-fat naan.

She’s also quick to point out that while Indian restaurants can be heavy on the oil, ghee, and cream, at home and in this cookbook the recipes are lighter. “I’m trying to teach non-Indians how we eat at home so they can appreciate that, but I’m also trying to reteach my own Indian-American community how to eat healthier,” she says. If you learn how to use Indian spices correctly, you’ll find you don’t need excessive fats or cream for flavor. “The spices are really what ramp it up to the next level. It’s very key to know which spice pairs with which legume most effectively. Once you know, then you can kind of experiment,” she says.

Indian recipes are also very adaptable to gluten-free, dairy-free, and vegetarian diets. “It’s one of the few cuisines where vegetables are really the mainstay on your plate,” she says. “We rarely, if ever, depend on the meat to give us our flavor. We never use any kind of meat broth in our lentils and our dals. We just use water.”

For Singla, who has lived in Chicago for 20 years, this cookbook serves two purposes: it helps busy home cooks easily prepare wholesome meals and it preserves Indian culture for her children, who were photographed helping their mom in the kitchen for the cookbook. “I really taught them how to eat Indian so that they’d walk out of the house and wear it as a badge of honor rather than something that they were embarrassed of,” she says.

She also hopes that Indian cooking will catch on in the Midwest like it has on the coasts. “I feel like in the Midwest, people want to taste more Indian. I think they crave it, they want it, but the exposure has not quite been there,” she says. “There’s more potential here for growth. I look at it as an opportunity.”

Singla will be in Minneapolis on Tuesday, May 7, for a book signing at the Eastside Food Co-op from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and for a cooking class at Coastal Seafoods from 6 to 8 p.m.