Saturday, January 28, 2006

Trying to Diet Part 1 – Going Veggie at Pepper Tree

“I understand the struggle. You look down, see a Jell-O mold implanted in your gut, and figure that your days of having a flat stomach vanished the day you graduated from high school. . . . Think of your abs as the third cousins you met at a past family reunion. You remember seeing them, so you have a vague memory of what they look like, but it's been so long that you really don’t have a clue where they are now.”
-David Zinczenko, The Abs Diet

January is for dieting. Every year I look at my December gut and resolve to turn it to abs by February. It never works, but I feel compelled to try.

I have tried two extreme diets. The first was vegetarian. I did not become a vegetarian to respect animal rights or to follow some eastern philosophy. I went vegetarian because I got food poisoning at Nick’s Beef and Beer. I was a student in Boston, and Nick’s had the cheapest burgers in town. This burger made me very, very ill. I decided then that, if I stopped eating meat, I could avoid food poisoning and lose weight. Plus, the steaks and barbeque in Boston are lousy. I lost 30 pounds at first. But after three years of eating vegetarian, I weighed more than when I started

The second diet was high protein. When I was 34, I tried Atkins. Same problem: lots of short term weight loss followed by lots of long term weight gain. When I returned to my normal diet after Atkins, I weighed more than when I started.

No more extreme diets for me. But once in a while, I revisit my veggie days and go to the Pepper Tree. Pepper Tree is an all-you-can-eat, all-vegetarian, Asian buffet on Richmond near Weslayan. Most buffets are really bad – too many warmed over fried foods that are bad for dieting and worse for eating. But the 40-plus buffet items at Pepper Tree are very good and very interesting. Most dishes use some meat substitute like tofu, soy beans, or wheat roast. About half of those dishes try to imitate meat: veggie “sushi,” sweet and sour “pork” (wheat roast), Indian curry “chicken” (tofu). When I was a vegetarian, I thought this kind of dish was disingenuous – a vegetable should not try to be a meat. B ut now, as a meat eater, I realize that many of these dishes are very good, perhaps because they do taste like meat. The other half of the foods at Pepper Tree are dishes that highlight the actual ingredients. My favorite dish is a salad of soy beans with spicy peppers and julienne celery and carrots. It is salty and spicy and emphasizes the umami flavor of the soy beans.

I enjoy Pepper Tree, but will it help my new, more modest diet? No, not if the shape of the customers is any indication. Sure, some customers are perfectly fit Asian-Americans. But most of the non-Asian customers are really fat. After all, a buffet is a buffet. If you eat massive quantities of food, even a “healthy” buffet is going to make you fat.

Don't go to Pepper Tree to lose weight. Do go if you like soy beans, wheat roast, and tofu. No other restaurant in town uses these kinds of ingredients to make so many dishes full of imagination and taste.

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