Raw food — dishes made entirely from vegetables, nuts, seeds and such ingredients as avocado and coconut, none of it heated to much more than 115 degrees — was a novel offering when we saw it spring up on the menus of Everlasting Life, Elizabeth’s Gone Raw and Cafe Green. The dishes are tasty and meat-free, perfect for those who can’t get behind processed faux meats as well as for those who have excised gluten from their diets.
Still, who expected that the city’s raw restaurants would multiply? This winter, a homey, international incarnation of the trend arrived on H Street NE, on the same block that’s rapidly picking up foot traffic thanks to Boundary Road, Sidamo Coffee and Tea, and perhaps not coincidentally, a Bikram yoga studio.
Khepra Anu, once the raw chef of Takoma D.C. vegetarian restaurant Senbeb Cafe, opened Khepra’s Raw Food and Juice Bar in December in the back of the health-food shop Dynamic Wellness.
This small kitchen is mostly carryout for now and it can get a little cramped, what with all the fruits and coconuts, plantains and veggies that fill the narrow space. It's from these ingredients that Anu and his staff are creating rich raw dishes including a tasty "crab cake" made of zucchini, and a hemp burger with a flat, flaxseed "bun." The sides include garlicky collard greens, wild rice salad and a “fried” plantain with a crispiness that would fool anyone who didn’t know it wasn’t actually fried. All of it has a nice kick, thanks to a hearty helping of spices.
Raw foodists say cooking depletes vegetables of their nutrient-rich enzymes, so the goal is to prepare dishes without traditional baking, cooking or frying.
That’s Anu’s challenge, too. In most restaurants, he says, “When your food is being heated, it’s being nuked or boiled in oil. It might be convenient for the restaurant, but it’s inconvenient for you.”
“We’re very gentle with the food,” he says. He’s outfitted his kitchen with a deyhdrator, juicer and food processor and not much else; his cooking method is “a lot of soaking and sprouting — things can take overnight, but it’s all for our health.”
He explains how some dishes are made: “Zucchini, when you shred it...it has a starch content that reminds you of pasta. Cashew sauce substitutes for cheese.” Many dishes, however, look familiar, studded as they are with corn, peas, broccoli and avocado.
“As a chef, I’m not doing anything miraculous,” Anu says. “I’m just using quality ingredients.”
He adopted a raw diet in 2000, and, since he liked salads, he subsisted mostly on salads and fruits for the first six months. Then, he recalls, “I said, ‘Okay, this is getting a little old.’”
At the time, raw food hadn’t evolved, he says; There were a few books out but little on the Internet and no YouTube videos to teach preparation methods. So he taught himself, ultimately landing the job at Senbeb. He had doubts that there would be much of an audience. Yet, he’s noticed the people who visit are “people that are not raw foodists. It’s people who just want to eat healthy.”
Dishes are $15 for an entree (such as the hemp burger) with all the sides, or $12 for an entree with two sides; platters of sides are also available, as are desserts ($7) and the fresh juices ($7).
Eighty to 90 percent of the ingredients are certified organic, Anu says.
“It’s important to educate your consumer. I say, ‘Look, this is an investment. You pay now, or you’re going to pay later, because what you’ve compromised is your health.’ ”
A few feet behind the counter, you can see kitchen staff cracking open coconuts; the coconut water, milk and tender young coconut goes into many of the dishes to give them a richness; the water also goes into the drinks such as the tart gojiberry blend. The shop goes through 200 coconuts in a day, 1,000 in a week.
Says Anu, “I’m living a dream I didn’t know I had.”