Recently we discussed how the Chinese make the most of vegetables, using the Fragrant Vegetable as a prime local example. But there's more to vegetarian cooking than mushrooms and mock meats. Health food chefs should get their act together about how they use grains. The things they serve now are a scandal: stodgy brown rice pilaf, sullen breads you could use as a doorstop, sludgy tabbouleh. Maybe (getting a little daring) a whole-wheat tortilla now and again.
So go, health food chefs. Go and study the cuisines of the world. Everywhere you'll find people who very largely live on grains, which they prepare in a stupendous variety of ways. Go, learn from them; they've had to live on this sort of stuff a lot longer than you have. Then come back and open a restaurant.
Or go to Paru's Indian Vegetarian Cuisine--any of them. There are Paru's in Hollywood, Beverly Hills and the newest one, a scrubbed little storefront, in Northridge. It's nothing fancy, just a tiny white room with one mirror-covered wall and some color photos of Indian scenes, all attended by a jolly Indian woman to whom vegetarianism is clearly as natural as breathing. But Paru's knows its grains.
This is south Indian food and while there are plenty of similarities to the familiar Punjabi cuisine that we usually find in Indian restaurants, the fact that it is totally vegetarian makes a big difference. Instead of having a meat curry with vegetables, the southerners are likely to have a vegetable curry and/or a bunch of sauces and condiments on the side, with the piece de resistance being something made from grain.
For instance, uttappam . This is a thick pancake of a coarse, crunchy texture with some tomatoes and bell peppers worked into it. In a way, it's like a pizza, and it's sliced pizza too, though there's no cheese and really no topping. Instead, you get a tart, slightly spicy soup/sauce called sambar with it, and a slightly rich coconut chutney. You could also order a number of other condiments to go with it, such as mango chutney, or a sharp hot pepper sauce called pickle, or sour tamarind sauce, or a very strange south Indian sauce made from lentils, tamarind and the charcoaly spice kalonji .
Adai , which the menu calls super pancake, is made from a batter that includes four kinds of ground beans, together with red pepper and the garlicky spice asafoetida. It's also crunchy and a little heavy from the clarified butter that it is fried in. But you could as easily make rice the center of the meal, or one of the Indian hot breads such as poori or paratha , or the very interesting south Indian steamed rice bread idli . It looks a little like bars of bath soap, but it has a sourdough flavor and a pleasant chewy texture.
And then there's masala dosa , a crisp, gigantic crepe rolled around potatoes flavored with turmeric and mustard, a ranking contender for a vegetarian street-food hit on the order of the hamburger. If you're really curious, you could order a slightly spicy pilaf called uppama , or a combination dish consisting of a rather moist and buttery rice pilaf studded with cashews and a simple, mildly spiced stew of tomatoes and eggplant. This last item is called " pongal and gotsu ," but don't ask me which is the pongal and which is the gotsu .
Paru's has some combination plates disporting these items in various combinations. There's also a thali combo plate, which is two fresh poori breads, the lentil sauce sambar , the yogurt and cucumber condiment raita and two curries from your choice of the five available on any given night. I recommend the tomatoey chickpea curry, which seems to have fennel seed as one of the flavors (fennel is honored in Punjabi restaurants mostly as something to nibble on when paying your check).
And there's a dessert, a fluffy Cream-of-Wheat thing with no name given--pale yellow, flavored with rose water and cardamom. It looks like nothing, sitting in the smallest slot of the stainless steel thali tray, but it's addictive. It's not the best dessert, though. For my money, that's nuts cake, which is a sort of flaky, non-chocolate brownie cooked with plenty of butter and mixed with pistachios.
Oh, I forgot. There are appetizers too. The samosas have the usual potato and pea filling, and maybe some more fennel seed, and vadai are chewy and rather dry doughnuts of lentil flour, though not bad if you dip them in half a dozen sauces. The best of them are the cutlets, which are potatoes, peas and carrots deep-fried together.
Vegetarians and other health-food people should be demanding more from their restaurants than approved ingredients and an atmosphere of self-congratulation. Paru's shows one way to glamorize those healthful grains.
Recommended dishes: cutlets, $2.75; uttappam , $5.75; masala dosa , $4.95; nuts cake, $2.
Paru's, 9545 Reseda Blvd., No. 16, Northridge. (818) 349-3546. Open for lunch and dinner 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesdays through Mondays, brunch served Saturdays and Sundays. No alcoholic beverages. Parking lot. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $16 to $27.