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On tonight's state dinner menu for vegetarian Modi, mushrooms are the star


Tonight President Biden is dining with a special guest, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It's a high-stakes event as the White House tries to strengthen its ties with India. State dinners show off the best of American cuisine. The main course usually features beef or lamb, but tonight 400 guests will be looking down at a stuffed portobello mushroom. NPR's Deepa Shivaram reports.

DEEPA SHIVARAM, BYLINE: Prime Minister Modi is a strict vegetarian, so tonight's menu is almost entirely plant-based - no meat, no dairy, no eggs. It's the first time in recent history that the menu for a state dinner has been vegetarian, so the White House brought in a guest chef to help - Nina Curtis from California, who specializes in plant-based cooking.


NINA CURTIS: We have curated a menu that really showcases the best in American cuisine, also then seasoned with Indian elements and flavors.

SHIVARAM: Those flavors include saffron in the risotto and millet, a grain commonly used in Asia. The dessert is a twist on an American classic - a cardamom-infused strawberry shortcake. The main course features the portobello and loads of vegetables.


CURTIS: They are light. They're refreshing. They're satisfying and, yes, satiating.

SHIVARAM: Planning a state dinner takes months, especially when a guest chef is recruited. Back in April, when the Bidens invited South Korea's president for a state dinner, they invited Edward Lee to help. He's a Korean American chef with restaurants in D.C. and Louisville, Ky. Lee says the job was one of the peaks of his career, but also at its peak was his stress level.

EDWARD LEE: Very high stakes. Normally, if you screw up a dinner, you just have some, you know, complaining guests. But, you know, these are heads of nations, so you can't. The pressure is really on.

SHIVARAM: Lee says First Lady Jill Biden was very involved in the plans, but he was given a lot of leeway to piece the menu together.

LEE: Really, the only directive that I was given was President Biden likes ice cream.

SHIVARAM: The day of the dinner, he says, is about the finishing touches and the fine tuning. Like, is there just enough salt in the sauce? Is the timing right for when the dishes are brought out? But his advice for Curtis, the guest chef tonight, is to take it all in.

LEE: Enjoy it. Take some time to stop. Look at the beauty of the White House.

SHIVARAM: The White House is hoping their guests from India will do the same. Deepa Shivaram, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deepa Shivaram is a multi-platform political reporter on NPR's Washington Desk.