White House veggies for Obama's big night

With arugula straight from his garden and entertainment by two Oscar winners, President Barack Obama offered a fresh take on the state dinner Tuesday in Washington's top social event since his inauguration.

For a youthful president who often draws comparisons to John F. Kennedy, Obama reserved the glamour of his first White House state dinner Tuesday for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India, in a bid to show his commitment to the world's largest democracy.

More than 300 guests including film director Steven Spielberg dined under the stars and drizzle in a warm tent on the South Lawn, their tables brightened by fuchsia and sweet pea arrangements and tall candles.

After entering with Singh through a hallway lit by floating candles in water vases, Obama likened the festive atmosphere to India's tradition of gala outdoor parties.

"It's been said that the most beautiful things in the universe are the starry heavens above us and the feeling of duty within us," Obama said in a toast to Singh, quoting an Indian proverb.

The appetizer came from just a few feet away - arugula, also known as rocket, grown in the White House garden, set up by First Lady Michelle Obama in her drive to encourage healthier eating.

It may also have been one of the more daring choices of the evening. While campaigning for president in Iowa in 2007, critics hoping to portray Obama as elitist attacked the then senator for speaking to farmers about arugula.

In a nod to Singh, who like many Indians prefers not to eat meat, the menu was all vegetarian save for an option of green curry prawns with smoked collard greens.

The guests' other choice, which also paid tribute to both Indian and African-American cuisine, was roasted potato dumplings with tomato chutney, chickpeas and okra.

Brought in as the guest chef was Marcus Samuellson, who was born in Ethiopia, raised in Sweden and lives in New York where his Aquavit restaurant has won acclaim for transcending cultural boundaries.

Michelle Obama described Samuellson as "one of the finest chefs in the country" and said the meal featured "the freshest ingredients from area farmers and purveyors."

"It's going to showcase the best of American cooking," she said.

The first lady sported a gold and cream strapless dress by Naeem Khan, an Indian-born US designer who has also made outfits for musical sensations Jennifer Lopez and Beyonce.

The guests also had a more direct look at musical celebrity with performances by Oscar winners Jennifer Hudson and A.R. Rahman, along with National Symphony Orchestra, jazz vocalist Kurt Elling and - away from the cameras - bhangra dancers.

Hudson, raised in a poor neighborhood in Obama's hometown of Chicago, shot to stardom on the reality show "American Idol" and went on to win an Academy Award for her performance in the movie "Dreamgirls."

Rahman is one of the top composers and musicians in India's prolific Bollywood film industry. He won two Oscars for his song "Jai Ho," which was the theme to the rags-to-riches blockbuster "Slumdog Millionaire."

With invitations to the dinner a hot commodity, some guests made their own fashion statements.

Semonti Stephens, a top aide to Michelle Obama, showed up in a red and golden sari from Kolkata which she wore to her own wedding.

Congressman Jim McDermott, a strong supporter of India, sported a black Nehru jacket he bought in India and his wife came in a sari.

But not all went smoothly. Senator Bob Casey entered the dinner only for his tuxedo's cummerbund to fall just as he strolled past waiting cameras.

Other guests included much of the top US leadership, entertainment moguls Spielberg and David Geffen, novelist Jhumpa Lahiri and spiritual guru Deepak Chopra.

While much of the glitz may appear to be for domestic consumption, Vice President Joe Biden assured the self-effacing Singh that it was meant to show a commitment to India.

"You are the hottest ticket in town," Biden told him.