Secrets to Success

First-time cookbook author Deepa Thomas never set out to win a James Beard Foundation award. She just wanted to get her husband off his daily insulin shots. Turns out, she managed to achieve both.

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Deepa Thomas burned the first meal she ever attempted to make. Just a few years later, she’s a James Beard Foundation award-winning food writer who is helping transform the way Americans cook Indian food at home.

Thomas’ award-winning debut cookbook, “Deepa’s Secrets: Slow Carb New Indian Cuisine,” is a critically acclaimed deep dive into “slow carb” Indian cooking. But the 68-year-old philanthropist and entrepreneur only took up cooking in 2010, in an effort to help her husband change his diet.

Deepa’s Secrets” emerged from Thomas’ quest to research, understand and help treat her husband’s Type 2 diabetes. By cutting carbohydrates while maintaining centuries-old Indian cooking philosophies and flavors, Thomas’ recipes helped her husband go from two daily shots of insulin to none in just five days. His remarkable turnaround, paired with Thomas’ own discovery of weight loss and improved health due to this new diet, inspired her to create her unique cookbook, which was published last year.

Thomas moved to Silicon Valley at age 21 in the early 1970s, following her arranged marriage to a Stanford University doctoral student, Thampy Thomas. “I knew my husband for only two hours before I married him,” Thomas says.

Today, however, she regularly refers to him as “the love of my life.” The couple, now living in a remodeled Nob Hill apartment with sweeping views of San Francisco Bay, have been married for more than 45 years, have two grown sons and just welcomed their first granddaughter. But when the newlywed strangers arrived in Palo Alto, they struggled to make ends meet.

Thampy Thomas founded the hugely successful semiconductor company NexGen, while Deepa, who had been a budding journalist in India, launched a commercial fabrics company, Deepa Textiles, which designed and sold fabric to furniture companies. She sold the company in 2006 to make time to care for her aging parents, but she had no idea what to do next.

“Maybe now I’ll find a rocking chair and go off into the sunset,” Thomas remembers thinking. “But the universe had different plans.”

Inspired by the passion she discovered while developing new recipes for her husband, Thomas connected her cooking with her past. The result is part cookbook, part memoir.  The book was rejected by dozens of publishers, but Thomas ultimately connected with Skyhorse Publishing, a company that gave her the freedom to write “Deepa’s Secrets” exactly the way she envisioned. It’s a bit more elaborate than the average cookbook — to start with, Thomas insisted that the book feature a padded cover and a gold-painted paisley strip along the binding.

Each chapter of the book begins with a description of an event from Thomas’ life, followed by detailed recipes and colorful images of completed dishes. Family photos are peppered throughout the book, along with detailed illustrations and tips and facts about various ingredients.

The photograph on the cover of “Deepa’s Secrets” shows Thomas’ actual cutting board, covered in traditional Indian spices. Each of the 74 recipes in the book was developed in Thomas’ San Francisco kitchen — and photographed there using natural light. Dishes were plated on Thomas’ personal collection of kitchenware, including her mother’s well-worn wok from the 1950s.

To perfect her “slow carb” concept, Thomas researched the glycemic loads of various carbohydrates. “Deepa’s Secrets” minimizes high-glycemic elements that are common to Indian recipes, like rice and bread. Instead, Thomas’ recipes focus on traditional Indian flavors in dishes simplified for modern home cooks. “India is a lot more than curry powder. It is the way it treats colors and textures,” Thomas says.

Her book has been a runaway hit, earning the 2018 James Beard Foundation book award and other honors. Thomas is donating her proceeds from “Deepa’s Secrets” to FoodCorps, a nonprofit that aims to provide American children with healthy food in school.

As an immigrant who became a United States citizen in 2012 so she could vote for President Barack Obama, Thomas believes that giving back is vital.

“If you do something, give it everything you have,” Thomas says. “This is the oldest of Indian philosophies.”

Keep reading: Dave Itzkoff, author of a new comprehensive biography of Robin Williams, visits Williams’ home turf of Marin County to reflect on the comedian’s life — and his death.

Beth Spotswood is Alta's digital editor, events manager, and a contributing writer.
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