Former Chicago TV personality Anupy Singla wants you to try your luck at vegan Indian cooking. She shares some of her best secrets from the kitchen on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm.
She’s the author of the number one Indian cookbook in the country – but that said, Chicagoan Anupy Singla may not lead the life you expect. The Lincoln Park mom spends most of her days shuttling her two daughters to and from school and preparing meals in a kitchen that, she says, is never clean. She loves to cook but – like so many parents – she admits she hates being forced to make dinner every day.
And yet, cook every day she does. Meanwhile, slowly by surely, Singla is building a major name for herself in the world of food. The breakout author of The Indian Slow Cooker just made a major leap in her mission to bring authentic Indian to the American heartland, in the form of a new book. It’s called Vegan Indian Cooking: 140 Simple and Healthy Vegan Recipes.
How did Singla get to this point? The answer: circuitously. For years, the Indian-born author worked as an on-air reporter for WGN and the Tribune-owned CLTV. Ironically, it was after an all-time journalistic high that Singla decided to walk away from the industry. In December 2005, in the middle of a major Chicago snowstorm, Singla was assigned to cover a Southwest Airlines jet that skidded off the runway at Midway Airport and crashed into a car, killing a young boy. One of the first reporters on the scene, she spent the day on the ground, conducting live interviews for her station and others across the country, including CNN.
“It was one of my best reporting days ever,” Singla said.
But after nine hours at work, she came home to her little girls eating their babysitter’s “soggy yellow broccoli.” The moment was a rude awakening for Singla, who says her mother always made sure there was a hot, authentic Indian meal at the table every night during her childhood. She decided to take indefinite leave from reporting and give her daughters the education in Indian food and culture that her mother had given her.
For Singla, Indian food is too often reduced to dishes like chicken tikka masala – a British invention, in fact – and oily naan. As an author, her goal is to move Americans towards food more aligned with what Indians eat at home on a daily basis.
Vegan Indian Cooking is centered on a simple premise: The Indian diet is anything but meat-centric, and it’s probably one of the healthiest you can find. Swap out the heavy oils, replace the dairy and cheese, and you’re left with a cuisine that’s highly adaptable – for vegetarians, vegans and the gluten intolerant – while also rich in flavor.
Singla, who says she’s been vegan since “before it was hip” in the 1990s, is one of the rare vegan authors who doesn’t come off as obsessed with her own ethos of eating.
“Who am I to judge what you have on your plate?” she said. “If my husband wants meat and brings it home, who am I to judge that? I just want you to enjoy your food. I don’t preach to anyone.”
Much of the new book is devoted to breaking down Western ideas of Indian food. Singla cautions readers to stay away from naan, leavened bread made of processed white flour that, she says, most Indians only consume at restaurants.
Conspicuously absent from her recipes are cream, heavy oils, and even curry powder, which Singla says is a blend created by “British folks” in an effort to “mimic” real Indian food. She’s also picky about meat substitutions, which are often “packed in sodium and made in a laboratory.”
Singla encourages readers to stock their pantries with the kind of “healthy, wholesome ingredients” you’d find at world food markets and Indian grocers, with some careful substitutions. For example, she says to substitute ghee, or clarified butter, for coconut, grapeseed or safflower oils; swap out white basmati rice for brown basmati, and so on.
She’s quick to cite the fact that South Asians have the highest incidence of heart disease of any racial demographic in the world.
“This is a way to re-educate my own community,” Singla said of Vegan Cooking.
The book comes out at what may be a turning point in Singla’s career: she’s currently in talks with a major network to develop a food series of her own (though she’s keeping the name of the network mum.) She’s already done some shooting for the show in the spice fields of India. The project stems, in part, from Singla’s frustration with today’s big-name food personalities.
“I really do believe that so many cooks and chefs on TV now have no concept of what TV’s all about,” she said.
As a reporter by trade, Singla says her personality may be better matched to bringing food stories to the public.
“I’m trained to take the ego out of what I’m doing and discover stories through food,” Singla said. “This is my quest to learn more.”
Check out recipes from Singla’s cookbook below.
Baked Samosa Sticks
YIELD: 12 MEDIUM SAMOSA STICKS
Making homemade samosas is a cinch, especially when you forgo the traditional triangle pocket and instead just roll the pastry into a samosa stick. I find traditionally shaped samosas difficult to eat. The shape is awkward, and they’re usually too big and intimidating for my kids. When you opt for the cocktail-sized samosas, you get more dough than filling and total disappointment. These samosa sticks are not only fun to make—they’re also fun to eat. Your kids will go crazy over them just like mine did.
1 cup (201 g) 100% whole-wheat chapati flour
½ teaspoon coarse sea salt
3 tablespoons (45 mL) oil
4 tablespoons (60 mL) water
1 tablespoon oil
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
½ teaspoon turmeric powder
1 small onion, peeled and minced (½ cup [75 g])
1 green Thai, serrano, or cayenne chile, stem removed, finely sliced
½ cup (73 g) peas, fresh or frozen (defrost first)
½ teaspoon garam masala
½ teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon red chile powder or cayenne
½ teaspoon mango powder (amchur)
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt
3 medium potatoes, peeled, diced, boiled, and slightly mashed
1. In a food processor, blend together the flour, salt, and oil. (If you don’t have a food processor, just do this by hand.)
2. Add the water. Process for another 2 to 3 minutes. The dough will be a little crumbly.
3. Transfer the dough to a deep bowl, and mix by hand until you have a smooth ball. Add more water in tiny amounts, if needed.
4. Wrap the ball of dough tightly in plastic wrap so it does not dry out. Let it sit for 30 minutes.
5. In a heavy sauté pan, heat the oil over medium-high heat.
6. Add the cumin and cook until the seeds sizzle, about 30 seconds.
7. Add the turmeric, onion, and chile. Cook until the onion is browned, about 2 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking.
8. Add the peas, garam masala, coriander, red chile and mango powders, salt, and potatoes. Cook 2 to 3 minutes, stirring occasionally.
9. Turn the heat to low and partially cover the pan. Cook for another 2 to 3 minutes. When the mixture is heated through, mash the potatoes with the back of a large spoon until they are broken down. If you have large pieces of potato, they will push through the pastry later.
10. Remove the pan from the heat, remove the lid, and let the mixture cool completely. If you fill the dough with a warm mixture, it will melt.
11. To roll the samosas: Lightly oil a baking sheet or line it with aluminum foil. Position a rack in the middle of the oven. Preheat the oven to 425°F (220°C). Pull off a small ball of dough, about a teaspoon. The smaller you can keep it, the better. Roll it thin, into a circle about 3 to 4 inches (7.5 to 10 cm) in diameter. This part is key. The thinner you can get the dough (without getting it so thin that the filling pushes through later), the crispier your samosa. While you are rolling out the dough, keep the remaining portion in plastic wrap or under a slightly damp paper towel to help keep it moist. If the dough sticks to the rolling pin, lightly coat your rolling pin with cooking spray or lightly spray your dough.
12. Take about a tablespoon of the filling and spread it in over the pastry, leaving a ¼-inch (6-mm) border.
13. Take the edge closest to you and slowly and carefully roll it toward the opposite edge. Press softly to seal. Because of the oil in the dough, it should seal easily. The filled tube should be about 3 to 4 inches (7.5 to 10 cm) long, a perfect size for little fingers. Sometimes the dough is too thin and sticks to your surface as you try to roll it. Just keep a spatula or a butter knife handy to gently help you lift the edge. Once you have that up, you’ll be able to roll the rest easily.
14. Gently place the filled and rolled sticks seam-side down on the prepared baking sheet.
15. Continue until you finish assembling all of your samosa sticks.
16. To bake the samosas: Brush or spray all sides of the samosa sticks lightly with oil.
17. Bake the samosa sticks for 7 to 10 minutes.
18. Gently flip them over, and bake for another 7 to 8 minutes, until lightly browned.
19. Transfer the sticks to a tray to cool slightly before serving with a side of Mint and/or Tamarind–Date Chutneys (see recipes on pages 219 and 224).
Notes: The type of flour you use is key here. Most chapati flour is a soft, finely milled whole wheat flour. In the West, hard red wheat flour is popular, which is slightly bitter in taste and darker in color than chapati flour. To make a lighter, tastier pastry, opt for the chapati flour, which can be found in any Indian grocery store. If you don’t have access to an Indian grocer, track down some whole-wheat pastry flour, which can be found in most specialty health food stores. If you can’t find that, mix 2 parts traditional whole-wheat flour with 1 part all-purpose white flour.
This samosa filling needs to have a mashed-potato texture, because you will be rolling it. If you use a mixture with large pieces or chunks, they will push through the dough when rolling. If you are storing these to serve later, let them cool completely before you put them into an airtight container, or you run the risk of the crust getting slightly soft rather than staying crispy. Heat them in a traditional oven or toaster oven before serving for best results.
Spiced Peas and “Paneer” (Mattar “Paneer”)
YIELD: 7 CUPS (1.66 L)
My mother and mother-in-law both make a great mattar paneer. In fact, theirs are so good that I’d rather not disappoint my husband with my own version when it comes to his favorite dish. With this recipe, I finally got close enough to the experts in my family. Even with the tofu substitution, it’s delicious—baking the tofu first makes all the difference in the world.
2 tablespoons oil
1 heaping teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 (2-inch [5-cm]) cinnamon stick
1 black cardamom pod
1 large yellow or red onion, peeled and minced (2 cups [300 g])
1 (2-inch [5-cm]) piece ginger root, peeled and grated or minced
6–8 cloves garlic, peeled and grated or minced
2 medium tomatoes, peeled and diced (3 cups [480 g])
3 tablespoons (45 mL) tomato paste
2–4 green Thai, serrano, or cayenne chiles, stems removed, chopped
3 cups (711 mL) water, divided
1 heaping teaspoon garam masala
1 heaping teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon red chile powder or cayenne
2 teaspoons coarse sea salt
1 pound (454 g) fresh or 1 (16-ounce [454-g]) bag frozen peas
1 (14-ounce [397-g]) package extra-firm organic tofu, baked and cubed
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro, for garnish
1. In a large, heavy pan, heat the oil over medium-high heat.
2. Add the cumin, turmeric, cinnamon, and cardamom and cook until the seeds sizzle, about 30 seconds.
3. Add the onion and cook until browned, about 3 minutes, stirring occasionally.
4. Add the ginger root and garlic. Cook for another minute, stirring to avoid sticking.
5. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, chiles, 1 cup of the water, garam masala, coriander, red chile powder, and salt and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer uncovered for 10 minutes.
6. Remove and discard the cinnamon stick and cardamom. Blend the mixture, either using an immersion blender or by transferring it to a blender or food processor. (This step is not necessary, but it adds smoothness to your final dish.)
7. Add the peas, baked tofu cubes, and remaining 2 cups (474 mL) water. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook for 10 minutes, uncovered.
8. Garnish with the cilantro. Serve with brown or white basmati rice, roti, or naan.