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Fit for a Top Chef Master

Showing his soul, Chef Suvir Saran calmly packed up his knives in Season 3 of “Top Chef Masters,” and exited with his head high and principles intact. His low-calorie veggie burger made for a bacon-cheeseburger-craving “Biggest Loser” contestant didn’t wow the judges, but it did provide a rare moment of authenticity on a reality TV show. Saran seized the opportunity to address a national audience about what he sees as the connection between red meat and obesity in America. The judges faulted him for making a political statement. Saran’s take: “I’m a political beast, not a sound-bite person. I made what I thought she should eat rather than what she wanted to eat.”

Chef Saran is known for his respectful, yet current, approach to traditional Indian flavors at his Michelin-starred New York restaurant, Devi; for his three accessible Indian cookbooks; and for his passionate engagement with healthy eating initiatives. Launching this summer in India will be a TV panel show with Saran as host. He says the show, which will beam to more than 400 million Indian households, is his take on “The View.”

Saran’s spiritual center reveals itself in two very different meals he considers transformative for him as a chef. One, an over-the-top hunting dinner at a friend’s hunting lodge in the hamlet of Muchmucha in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. Another, a scene from a recent family moment with his parents and siblings.

“I grew up in a food-obsessed family in New Delhi. At breakfast, we would obsess about which tiffin to take for lunch. At lunch, we would discuss the evening snack. The kitchen was the center of my family, and the table was the sanctum of the social network. There were six of us in the family, but there were always a dozen or more unannounced visitors for dinner. Food was the grease that got conversation flowing around the table. We were Hindu –– my grandmother saw to that –– but nothing was taboo in our household. The most important topics were philandering, politics and religion. We were a successful family, but a spiritual one. Food was left as an offering on the roof so the birds could take it to god. We learned that you are what you eat, so be careful about what you eat.”

No wonder there are no tigers left

“An experience that countered my family ethos (and turned me into a drama queen) was a meal I had at a friend’s family hunting lodge when I was 20 years old, about 20 years ago. I’d grown up in a vegetarian household, so the idea of hunting every night for the next day’s meal was very foreign to me. But this family was the largest landlord in the state of Madhya Pradesh, and every night we would go hunting for rabbits, swans, geese, foxes, goats and even tigers and lions. The hunting party would go out in the Indian version of the Hummer, and the villagers (who were all tenants of the family) would light torchieres to attract the animals, and the shooting would begin. ‘Oh my god,’ I thought! ‘No wonder the world doesn’t have any tigers left!’

“For dinner the next day, the deer or the water buffalo would be stuffed with the goat, the goat stuffed with wild ducks, and all would be rubbed with spices and slow baked over night. It was a Liberace scene — gold glasses, silver glasses, things you dream of in fantasies. What people can do in the middle of poverty if they have money! I saw India in a different way. But I also paid close attention. In many ways, that experience in Muchmucha gave me my ability and my desire to make things look beautiful on the plate.

‘Nothing fancy’

“A second transformative meal took place in 2002 at my father’s bedside in Denver. He was in Denver for a liver transplant, and I was supposed to be the donor. My father, who had been a top government figure in India, was barely alive and under 80 pounds. It was shortly after the U.S. began bombing Afghanistan. The whole family came — my sister, my mother … We took up a big home in Denver and were all together in a way that we had not been since we were kids living under the same roof. My mother and I took control of the kitchen. Every day, all day long, my father would talk about what he wanted to eat. Everything had to be fresh, “What do you have in the fridge?” he would ask.Stir-fried cabbage with red peppers, peanuts and peas

“He wanted a cabbage dish made with cumin seed. Nothing fancy. Something we had eaten as children in our home in Delhi. Simple, fresh, with lots of fiber. A handful of peanuts, a few bell peppers, a little bit of oil and spice. So basic, but it never stopped giving us pleasure. After that, we ate it every day in Denver. And I, who had always hated cabbage all my years in Delhi, fell in love it. Who would have thought that the humble cabbage could be so sexy? It reminded me that simple, timeless, traditional recipes stand the test of time.”

Stir-Fried Cabbage With Red Peppers, Peanuts and Peas

Serves 10

Ingredients

3 tablespoons canola oil
1½ teaspoons cumin seeds
1 teaspoon turmeric
3 dried red chiles
2 cups toasted unsalted American peanuts
1, 3½-pound head of cabbage, cored and finely chopped
2 red peppers, seeded and finely chopped (pea-sized pieces)
1 cup frozen peas
1 to 1½ teaspoons kosher salt, or to taste

Directions

  1. Heat the canola oil with the cumin seeds, turmeric and chiles in a large pot or wok over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until the chiles become smoky, about 3 minutes.
  2. Add the peanuts and cook for two minutes, to brown them slightly and heat them up.
  3. Add half of the cabbage and all of the red peppers and peas and stir to combine with the spices. After a couple of minutes the cabbage will start to wilt. Now stir in the remaining cabbage.
  4. Cook, stirring often, until the volume has reduced by one-third and the cabbage looks very browned, about 15 to 30 minutes (depending on your pot or wok).
  5. Mix in the salt and serve warm or at room temperature.

Top photo: Chef Suvir Saran. Credit: Jim Franco



Zester Daily contributor Louisa Kasdon is a Boston-based food writer, former restaurant owner and  the founder and CEO of Let's Talk About Food, an organization that engages the public around food issues in our world. Kasdon was the food editor for Stuff magazine and the contributing editor for food for the Boston Phoenix.  Winner of the MFK Fisher Award for Culinary Excellence, she has  written for Fortune, MORE, Cooking Light, The Boston Globe, Boston Magazine and The Christian Science Monitor, among others.

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