Padma Lakshmi on the Immigrant Cuisines That Make America

When we chatted with Padma Lakshmi back in March, the U.S. was just one week into quarantine—a time dedicated to adjusting to life at home and, if you were Lakshmi, cooking big pots of lentils and decadent slabs of chocolate cake. A lot has happened since then. And while the concept of her just-released show, Taste the Nation, was acutely relevant three months ago, watching Lakshmi dismantle American food to its immigrant roots feels even more essential now, especially as conversations around who gets to claim those foods continue to swirl.
 
But as much as Taste the Nation is a food show, it’s also a travel show, taking Lakshmi all over the country to eat meals with the Gullah Geechee community in South Carolina, comedian Ali Wong in San Francisco, and spearfisher Kimi Werner in Honolulu. We caught up with Lakshmi to hear about what she’s learned while filming—and the cheese-laden taco from El Paso that she can’t stop thinking about.
 
Taste the Nation takes you all over the country. How did you choose the places you visited?
 
I wanted to cover [as many] different parts of the country as I could. I knew, for example, that I wanted to do an African American episode, because we don’t often look at African American food as separate from white American food in the history of this country. Yet that food has roots on other continents that date back centuries. Understanding your food history—and also just understanding your history—is essential, and so that was a very important episode for me to do. I’ve always been interested in immigrant issues, as well, because I’m an immigrant, and immigration is integral to the reason that America exists.
 
One of my favorite scenes from ‘Taste the Nation’ is when you’re grocery shopping with your mother in New York City. Why did that feel important to film?
 
I think that’s something that mothers and daughters do a lot—or at least, it’s something we certainly did when I was growing up. She lives on the West Coast so she hadn’t experienced Patel Brothers, and I wanted her to see what [immigrant communities] who haven’t left Queens have done. I’m very proud of my mom. I think she did a very heroic thing [moving to the U.S.]. And there are millions of people like her in this country. Those are the interesting people. They make America interesting.
 
How did your mom’s cooking shape your own palate?
 
She had a huge, huge influence on my palate. But it was also shaped by trips back to India every summer, where I had the influence of my grandmother and my aunt. My mother worked full time, though, so she not only taught me about our food heritage by way of practicing it everyday in our kitchen, but she also taught me how to cook quickly. She taught me how to be a working woman and get a healthy, hot meal quickly on the table. Those are not restaurant methods, but the methods of people in the world who get it done. My mom was a great example of that, more than just showing me how to make Indian food.
 
Speaking of people getting it done, women are at the center of many stories highlighted in the show. Which really stuck with you?
 
H&H Car Wash in El Paso was the only restaurant [I visited] where the women were completely in charge. These women have turned H&H into such an industry, and they walk across that border from [the Mexican city of] Juarez every day to do so. When people say things [about immigrants] like “they’re taking our jobs,” what exactly are they talking about? These women contribute to our economy as well, at an American business that pays American taxes.
 
Then there were the Thai war brides I met in Las Vegas. All three of them worked at the same commissary in Thailand, married American GIs, and then lived all over the world [before settling in the U.S.]. Through all of that, these women stayed in touch with each other through letters and long-distance phone calls. They became great mothers and citizens. Their story allowed me to show that America also has this beautiful history of accepting other cultures, and making them feel welcome.
 
What’s the best thing you ate while filming?
 
Oh my god, there were so many things. I really loved the taco I made with beautiful dark corn at Elemi in El Paso. The taco campesino is just so fucking delicious, and it’s genius the way chef Emiliano Marentes flips it over and singes all of the cheese rather than just the edges of it. Then there was this homemade kebab right off the grill [in Los Angeles] that was a thing of beauty. It only took four ingredients, which just proves that the sign of a really good cook is someone who can make something delicious out of very little
.
Food is such a social thing, and we’re all missing that human connection right now. What do you hope people get out of watching the show, as we come out of isolation?
 
When you’re not allowed to go out and meet anyone new, you begin to reflect on who is and isn’t in your life in a more thoughtful way. So my hope is that [this show] makes people more curious and wanting to know their neighbors a little bit better. I hope they learn the value of breaking bread with someone.
 

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