Chef on Call
Can Vegetable Biryani Satisfy Mr. Meat and Potatoes?

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."

But Jim was a good sport. When chef Singhvi invited the Gaffigans into the gleaming Bombay Club kitchen downtown on a recent Saturday morning for a crash course in vegan Indian cooking, Jim came with an open mind. "I'll just drink more wine if I have to," he joked.

Ashok Bajaj, the impresario behind the Bombay Club, as well as Rasika, 701, Ardeo/Bardeo and the Oval Room, also attended the lesson and demonstrated his skills as a consummate host. "How about some wine?" he suggested, while already opening a bottle.

Singhvi had laid out a panoply of ingredients: vegetables (carrots, cauliflower, green beans, spinach, tomatoes, onions, chili peppers); fruits (papaya, mango, pineapple, grapes, bananas); herbs (cilantro, mint, fenugreek); and garlic and ginger. Polished silver porringers held turmeric, deggi mirch (chili powder), cardamom, cumin, mace, cinnamon, star anise and cloves.

The menu included Fruit Chaat, a salad whose savory spices transformed sweet components; Hara Kebab, spinach and yellow lentil cakes with mint chutney; Kadai Mushrooms in a fiery gravy; Moong Usal (a pilaf of sprouted mung bean, ginger, tomatoes and coconut milk); a glorious biryani of saffron-infused basmati rice baked with assorted vegetables; Raita, the cooling minty condiment made with cucumbers and yogurt (in this case, soy yogurt); and Khubani Ka Meetha, a sublimely simple dessert of poached apricots. Some dishes became vegan with the substitution of canola oil for the traditional ghee, or clarified butter.

Singhvi filled the stove with copper saucepans, sauteuses and kadais (the wok-like Indian version of the cast-iron skillet), and soon enough apricots were simmering, onions browning and basmati rice boiling.

The Gaffigans applied themselves assiduously. They quickly caught on to the most vital requirement for cooking Indian food efficiently: preparation. The recipes can seem daunting because there are so many ingredients and, in some cases, components, but many of them can be put together ahead of time.

"The beauty of the sauce base [for the biryani] is that you make a batch of it and keep it," Singhvi instructed. "So you come home from work at 7 o'clock, blanch the vegetables and toss them in the sauce: one, two, three. It's like you're buying it in the jar, but it's fresh and stays fresh for several days. Or you can freeze it."

Moong Usal requires advance work, but "you build it into your routine," Bajaj suggests. "In Bombay, they are fast food. You find them by bus stops. They toss them with onions and lemon juice and you eat it on the bus."

The real payoff is that they are loaded with protein and other health-friendly goodies.

"You see this turmeric?" asked Bajaj. "Doctors now say: 'A spoonful a day and you won't get Alzheimer's or Parkinson's.' Indians don't have these conditions as much. Studies attribute this to the spices we eat."

Sandra was the choir to Bajaj's preaching. "My cholesterol dropped 32 points in a year from not eating meat," she said. "Besides, I feel so much better now, and I don't get sick."

A moment later, after two hours of cooking, the whirlwind of kitchen activity ceased. The dishes were ready. "Now we're going to sit down and eat!" declared Bajaj. "You help yourself like a buffet," he advised, while showing us how small helpings of each dish could turn our plates into artists' palettes.

Sandra was enchanted; Jim was on fire. The biryani was hot. Flop-sweat hot. And the wine was disappearing fast. "You're finding this too spicy; I can tell," Bajaj said. "Eat some more raita with it. It will cool you off. When you do this at home, you reduce the spices to suit your tastes."

"It is hot to the tongue," Jim said, "but it's fascinating. I can see you have to play with the spices. It's like how much mustard you like on your food." When I noticed Jim taking a second helping of Moong Usal, I realized there might be hope.

"This stuff's pretty good," he said. "But I still think there's room for a little meat and cheese in a healthy diet. Everything in moderation."

So much for seduction.

David Hagedorn, professional chef and former restaurateur, can be reached atfood@washpost.com. His Chef on Call column appears the third Wednesday of every month.

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