Chef on Call

In the Bombay Club kitchen, Chef Nilesh Singhvi, left,  gives a lesson in vegan cooking to Columbia residents Sandra and Jim Gaffigan; at far right, salt goes into the Raita.
In the Bombay Club kitchen, Chef Nilesh Singhvi, left, gives a lesson in vegan cooking to Columbia residents Sandra and Jim Gaffigan; at far right, salt goes into the Raita. (Photos By Len Spoden For The Washington Post)
By David Hagedorn
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 18, 2007

When Sandra Gaffigan of Columbia read T. Colin Campbell's "The China Study," it persuaded her to switch to a vegan diet. Her husband, Jim, was not so sure -- especially once she started cooking.

"Our meals have been on a rocky road," she wrote in an e-mail. "It has been the awful year we all went vegan. My husband is very unhappy without meat, butter, eggs and milk. Do you know a chef who can seduce his palate with tantalizing vegan meals?"

We did, or at least we thought we did: Chef Nilesh Singhvi of the Bombay Club, the vanguard of Indian cooking in Washington for 18 years, was a natural choice. Vegetarianism is, after all, a mainstay of Indian cooking, and veganism, which avoids all animal products, is only one step further.

If anyone was up to this challenge, it was Singhvi, but the real question turned out to be this: Would Jim Gaffigan even be seducible?

Poor health was not the Gaffigans' issue; they were just at an age when staving off the inevitable becomes more difficult. "Even if you are genetically gifted as we are, with low blood pressure and parents that generally lived to a long age, it's not enough," said Sandra, 64, a librarian for the Howard County school system. "My cholesterol still went above what it was supposed to be."

But the changes she made didn't go over so well with her husband, 65, a lobbyist for the tourism industry. "I bought a kit for wheat berry chili that used eggplant as a meat substitute," she said. "It was awful. Jim almost threw me out of the house."

Jim, a 6-foot-5-inch, half-Polish, half-Irish guy born and bred in Queens, N.Y., enjoys food. To him, eggplant Parmesan, porterhouse steak, a small salad and Italian bread with lots of butter is a well-balanced meal. Inducing him to welcome spinach and lentil cakes was going to be a tall order.

But Sandra, as petite and diffident as Jim is large and extroverted, was determined. "It's a selfish thing," she admitted. "I want Jim to be around to drive and to go places and to walk. I'm 64 years old. I don't want to live out my life pushing around a person that size in a wheelchair."

It would be nice to report that after a lesson from Chef on Call, Jim became an instant convert, but that was not exactly the case.

Embracing veganism is more than just a mental commitment; to be truly satisfying, vegan cooking requires more time and effort than cooking with animal products. The pleasure of eating cheese, butter and eggs largely comes from the mouthfeel of fat rolling across our taste buds. The time it takes to chew protein, especially red meat, allows its sapor to register.

Vegan food, though, has to captivate us instantly, which is where complexity of seasoning comes in. With its layering of zesty spices and complements of soothing condiments, Indian cooking is so much more sophisticated than most of us realize. Would Jim go for it?

"If he wants to stay with me, he will," Sandra said, laughing. "He has a mental block against Asian food. He sees me doing too much chopping, and he just isn't familiar with the spices."

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