President Joe Biden and first lady Dr. Jill Biden are set to fête India Prime Minister Narendra Modi Thursday evening at the White House, hosting a lavish, tented state dinner featuring a plant-based menu for their guest of honor, who is a vegetarian.
For President Biden, a notoriously picky eater, the stuffed portobello mushroom main course is a thoughtful diplomatic gesture for his guest. Biden’s willingness to eat his vegetables as he hosts Modi is a signal of the importance he places on cultivating the US-India relationship, a key aspect of his Asia strategy, despite Modi’s concerning track record on human rights and drift toward authoritarianism.
In turn, Modi has agreed to participate in a one-and-one joint press engagement with Biden after their meetings – the result of lengthy, delicate negotiations between the two sides. While not at all on par, the two gestures are indicative that they are both willing to give a little.
Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has come under scrutiny from rights groups and opposition lawmakers for its increasingly strident brand of Hindu nationalist politics and an ongoing crackdown on dissent. Ahead of the visit, a group of more than 70 lawmakers wrote a letter to Biden urging him to bring up human rights concerns during the visit, something White House officials have said the president will do.
Modi’s visit got underway Wednesday as Jill Biden welcomed him to the US National Science Foundation in nearby Alexandria, Virginia, for a conversation on workforce development, an area where the two countries plan to expand cooperation.
“With this official visit, we are bringing together the world’s oldest and the world’s largest democracies,” Biden told her guest during the panel discussion, heralding the “deep and expansive” partnership between the US and India.
Modi, in turn, heaped praise on the first lady: “Your life, your hard work, and your achievements are all a source of inspiration for everyone,” he said, via a translator.
In the evening, the Bidens hosted Modi for a private dinner, where they gifted the prime minister an antique book galley, a vintage American camera, and a signed, first edition copy of “Collected Poems of Robert Frost.”
Thursday’s events will begin with the formal pomp and circumstance of the official White House arrival ceremony, which includes a military review, a performance of both countries’ national anthems and remarks from both heads of state. Biden and Modi will then retreat to the Oval Office for bilateral meetings ahead of their press availability.
Then in the evening, approximately 400 guests will begin arriving for the glitzy, black tie state dinner, the result of weeks of meticulous planning by the White House social team, the East Wing and the State Department, weaving American and Indian cultural elements and traditions into the décor, entertainment, and menu.
The dinner will be held in a “translucent pavilion structure,” per the office of the first lady, with views of the White House, the Jefferson Memorial, and the Washington Monument, as well as greens and saffron honoring the Indian flag. Biden and Modi will give toasts with a backdrop nodding to both national birds: The bald eagle and the peacock, respectively.
The peacock, White House social secretary Carlos Elizondo said, also served as inspiration for much of the design.
“We want it to evoke that breathtaking feeling when it extends its tail, unveiling its colorful beauty, majesty, and spirit,” he said.
The tables will be set with dark green and pale blue linens adorned bright pink and orange florals, candles, and symbols of the lotus flower, designed by the White House team in conjunction with David Stark Design and Production.
“Each table arrangement is warm and unique. We hope guests feel as if someone has set their table just for them – because we have,” Biden said during a preview of the dinner.
Elizondo told reporters that Jill Biden sought to make Thursday’s large-scale event feel intimate: “She’s been involved in this event at every step of the way, and every element of the dinner and décor has been chosen to make each guest experience personal and warm.”
Entertainment will be provided by Grammy Award-winning violinst Joshua Bell, the University of Pennsylvania’s “Penn Masala” South Asian student a cappella group, and “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band Chamber Orchestra.
Guest chef Nina Curtis, a plant-based chef from Sacramento, California, worked closely with White House Executive Chef Cris Comerford, and White House Executive Pastry Chef Susie Morrison to develop the menu.
“We have curated a menu that really showcases the best of American cuisine seasoned with Indian elements and flavors,” Curtis told reporters, adding that meal will allow guests from both countries “to experience something of the other’s culture.”
Guests will dine on a first course of marinated millet and grilled corn with compressed watermelon and a tangy avocado sauce. The main course will be stuffed portobello mushrooms with a saffron-infused risotto. And dessert will be a rose and cardamom-infused strawberry shortcake.
For dinner guests seeking a non-vegetarian option, a main course of sumac-roasted sea bass will be available upon request. Asked if her husband would opt for the fish, the first lady laughed.
“We’ll see,” she said.
CNN’s Kevin Liptak, Jeremy Diamond and Rhea Mogul contributed to this report.