Books

Anupy Singla's 'Indian for Everyone' Has Me Asking: What Defines a Good Cookbook?

A relentless sales pitch aimed at Midwestern "moms" grates in this Indian cookbook. Ignore the patter and focus on the recipes.


Indian for Everyone: The Home Cook's Guide to Traditional Favorites

Publisher: Agate
Length: 288 pages
Author: Anupy Singla
Price: $35.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2014-10
Amazon

Readers demand far more from modern cookbooks than just useful recipe collections. Authors must be Personalities, expertly ushering readers through a dish’s every possible nuance. We turn to cookbooks for lifestyle advice on diet, decor, and entertaining. Increasingly, cookbooks are art objects, brimming with gorgeous photography. Authors like Naomi Duguid, Claudia Roden, and Paula Wolfert publish meticulously researched cookbooks delving deeply into various cultures through food.

Atop this sits the world of social media. It's no longer possible to publish a cookbook without a website, a blog, a twitter feed, a Facebook page.

What, then, defines a good cookbook?

Anupy Singla’s Indian for Everyone begs these questions. Were it possible to lift the recipes from context, I would heartily recommend them. Alas, I cannot. Indian For Everyone has some problems.

Chief among these is Singla’s unrelenting sales pitch. The author of two prior cookbooks, Singla plugs these throughout Indian for Everyone. Her website and the products sold therein are also continually pushed. As some readers may lack access to Indian spices, they will likely purchase online. Comparison shopping reveals the prices on Singla’s website are outrageously high. Two ounces of cumin seeds cost $7.95. At Penzey’s online, four ounces of cumin seed cost $4.55. Singla’s site charges $9.95 for 2.6 ounces of Kala Namak, or black salt. At Kalustyan’s online, three ounces costs $6.99.

Despite the inclusive title, Indian for Everyone is targeted at Midwestern "moms" who, it is assumed, have little experience of Indian food. Remarks meant to amuse or reassure can fall flat. Onions are a “smelly vegetable". Of mint chutney, "what you likely don’t know is how incredibly easy it is to make." Of the trickier street snacks: "With my clear instructions, you can do it." Homemade cheese, orpaneer, requires weights to expel moisture. Singla suggests cans, adding that you need not open them.

Readers are continually exhorted to get their children into the kitchen, and told that their kids will love a particular dish. While I’ve nothing against mothers or children, not every potential reader is a mother or a female.

Singla’s equipment list is formidable, calling for two food processors, two slow cookers, idli molds, a tava, or flat metal pan, and a karhai, or Indian wok. You are directed to her website for a tiffin, or round metal box holding spice canisters. Singla suggests purchasing multiple tiffins, at $49.95 apiece, then making them up for individual cuisines, i.e., a French tiffin, a Mexican tiffin. Spices sold separately.

As for the Vitamix or “other powerful blender”, suggested here, I don’t know a cook who would refuse one. Save your pennies. Vitamixes start at $239.99.

Hoping for a cheaper equipment list, I turned to Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford’s Mangoes and Curry Leaves. The authors find a small spice grinder useful. Otherwise, a mortar and pestle, cast iron skillets, and a griddle will suffice.

Singla is a vegetarian with vegan leanings. With its strong emphasis on vegetarian dishes, Indian for Everyone’s structure reflects these inclinations. There are chapters on basics like Indian spices, blends, and chutneys, street foods, vegetable stir frys, dals, vegetable curries, breads, and desserts. There is, however, a brief chapter devoted to animal proteins.

When I turned to the recipes themselves, I was surprised to find none offered complete menu suggestions. Each dish stood alone, accompanied only by breads or rice. Assembling a complete meal was challenging. I thought about Indian meals past: a main dish, lentils, rice, a vegetable, a bread.

In the kitchen I began with paneer, or soft cheese. I poured a half gallon of milk into a pan, waited for the boil, then added the curdling agent, buttermilk. I watched in horrified dismay as nothing happened. In a sidebar, Singla writes paneer “doesn’t always work out perfectly.” She suggests blending failed paneer into a curry, but this was a huge amount for two people. I squeezed in some lemon, netting about a half cup of cheese and much wasted milk. In fairness, Singla warns readers that the recipe is tricky.

Rojan Josh was more successful. Although the recipe appears long, it isn’t difficult, and the results are rewarding. Boneless lamb is marinated in yogurt, paprika, onion, ginger, chile powder, and salt. You then cook it in more spices, add half-and-half, and serve it with rice.

I used lamb shanks bandsawed by my butcher. If partially cooked lamb can be called beautiful, this dish was. After browning, the shanks were speckled with spices, pink with yogurt and paprika. They smelled wonderful, even partially raw. The final product was brightly tasty but would not aggrieve your most spice-sensitive guests.

South Indian Parippu was incredible, the absolute winner. Who knew plain lentils could be so addictive?

Duhli masoor dal, or red lentils, are combined with tomato, a paste of onion, ginger, and garlic, fresh chiles, cumin, coriander, and turmeric. This is simmered until soft. Curry leaves, more spices and heaps of dried chiles are added. Coconut milk is stirred into this fiery mixture, creating a suave porridge. Poured over Basmati rice, it's a meal.

I served this with plain steamed spinach and, insanely out register, soft tortillas. It was all easy to prepare, demanding little kitchen skill beyond time and patience.

There are other recipes I look forward to trying. My maiden outing with Parippu left me eager sample the dal chapter. Masala scramble, or spicy scrambled eggs, is a quick way to take breakfast a new direction. A weekend afternoon would be well-spent mastering an Indian bread. If you are manually dexterous, follow Singla’s helpful how-to photographs to make samosas, India’s delicious answer to the pot-sticker or dumpling.

The recipes themselves are heavily italicized. This sounds trivial until you are in the kitchen, pots abubble, knife in hand, eyes watering with onion fumes, and you lean over to read an instruction, instead finding: The mixture will stick slightly to the bottom of the pan.

Italics are intended to convey urgency: Avert face when igniting alcohol. and Use caution with pureeing hot liquids. When recipes continually slide into italics, as they do here, they become that car alarm outside: extremely irritating.

Readers must decide if they agree with Singla’s decision to clean all produce the moment she gets it home. She admits the food spoils faster, but deems it timesaving. Nancy Singleton Hachisu, in her masterful Japanese Farm Food, devotes an entire page to why vegetables should be left dirty until preparation. In sum, freshness and flavor.

Indian for Everyone offers vegan options for nearly every recipe, using tofu, tempeh, or seitan, meat substitutes Singla calls “fantastic”. Current dietary wisdom counsels against soy products. The meatless crumbles called for in several recipes are comprised of textured vegetable protein, an substance roundly decried by health professionals. Deborah Madison, in The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, has completely revised her view of soy proteins. This onetime soy advocate now writes:

The highly processed TVP sits on the bottom of my list of wholesome and delicious foods. Tofu is considered fine to eat on occasion. However, all the highly derived and manufactured soy products, from soy yogurt to hot dogs to ice cream, are considered not worth eating.

This said, diet and cooking are deeply personal decisions. Readers must decide their comfort levels with soy, with seasonal eating (Singla's vegetables heed no seasons) and how they run their kitchens.

In the acknowledgments, Singla thanks a lot of people: the first person who Facebook friended her. Her daughters’ teachers. Her fellow "moms". Her business adviser. Her hairdresser. But not photographer Gregg Lowe, whose name only appears in the book’s cataloging information. As for the recipe testers, who were Facebook volunteers: "I know I will likely miss some of you on this list, so my apologies if I have."

Is Indian for Everyone for you? Despite the book’s serious drawbacks, Singla is an accomplished, knowledgeable cook. She obviously put tremendous work into creating practical, delicious recipes. Overlooking her efforts would be truly unfair. Stick to the recipes, and you’ll find Indian for Everyone to be a useful resource.

Those new to Indian cooking might pair it with Madhur Jaffrey’s An Invitation to Indian Cooking, a lovely cookbook that put Indian food on American home tables. The aforementioned Mangoes and Curry Leaves is another marvelous resource, albeit so beautiful you'll hesitate to cook from it.

***

While I worked on this review, Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty More, arrived in the mail. It is everything Indian for Everyone is not.

Ottolenghi is humble, quick to denigrate his skills, effusively thankful to others. Like Singla, he's a pushy salesman -- of other people's cookbooks.

The real difference is the joy Ottolenghi takes in his work. This is a man who loves food, from discovering new ingredients to dreaming up ways to preparing them to sharing them with loved ones. This passion shines through every page. That the ingredients are a bit arcane and the kitchen equipment sometimes elaborate matters not. Ottolenghi's buoyant enthusiasm -- his happiness -- is contagious.

Passion. A love for the food. A love of cooking for others. Unsurprisingly, a collection of useful recipes.

This is the definition of a good cookbook.

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