Padma Lakshmi ‘demanded’ Tabasco everywhere as a kid: ‘I couldn’t taste anything’

I’m the kind of person who sometimes tears up during cooking shows. It’s because my mind wanders and I start thinking about the immigrant history (and current immigrant experience) of America and how all of these different people from all over the world brought their food to America and how food unites us as a people. Basically, I think a lot about food constantly, which is a very Indian thing, and Padma Lakshmi is the same. She’s got a new Hulu show called Taste of the Nation where she travels around the country and explores all of these immigrant-cuisines which were brought to America. She chatted with Parade about food and the show and more. Some highlights:

She was just a child when her family immigrated to America: “When I first came to this country, we were limited in where we could go out to eat because I needed rice. I come from a rice culture in South India, so we’d have to go to a Chinese restaurant or a Mexican restaurant. And even though I was a young child, I was demanding Tabasco in my little Indian accent because I couldn’t taste anything.”

On hot dogs: When her mom introduced her to a New York City institution—hot dog carts—the then-vegetarian Lakshmi ordered hers with everything on it. Minus the hot dog.

She didn’t get peanut butter: “I’d go to friends’ houses and they’d make me a PB&J sandwich and I’d go, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t—it’s stuck to the roof of my mouth. Now I love peanut butter, but unless you’ve grown up with it, it’s a very odd ingredient.”

Her packed lunches: Like many immigrant kids, she longed to fit in, and the school lunches of dinnertime leftovers packed by her busy single working mom didn’t make it easy. “I was terrified to open my lunch box,” Lakshmi recalls. The fragrant Indian fare in her lunch was a stark contrast to her classmates’ humdrum baloney sandwiches. “When you opened my Tupperware, you’d get all this curry smell coming out. Indian food is delicious, but it’s not very visually appealing. I’d cringe, and kids were really mean: ‘What is that? It stinks!’ One of the reasons I think I was so skinny when I was a kid was because I didn’t want to open the box up.”

There is no “all-American” food: “We like to say that something is ‘as American as apple pie. But there’s nothing American about an apple pie. Not one ingredient is from North America, not even the apples, not the cinnamon, not the lard or rendered fat or butter, not the milled flour—none of it.” Even hot dogs are German contributions, as she explores in the show’s Milwaukee episode. “Until 100 years ago, nobody thought hot dogs were quintessentially American,” she says.

She spends an episode highlighting New York’s Indian American community, and it features her daughter Krishna: Krishna is biracial, Lakshmi says, and her culinary experience reflects that. “She goes to her father’s house, which is [more traditionally American] when it comes to food. And then she goes to her mom’s house, where we eat with our hands if we’re having Indian food.” (Growing up on the Top Chef set also helped foster her daughter’s adventurous palate, she says.) But those kinds of “layers of culture make us who we are. I think that’s what makes America special. We might speak different languages, we may have different spices on our chicken, but at the end of the day the deeper issues are very much the same.”

[From Parade]

I’m fine with some Indian food, but there’s one dish which makes me so sick, even if I just smell it, I feel like throwing up (even when my dad used to make it from scratch, I would have to leave the room/house). While I like a little spice, I’m also from the old-school (?) of “I want to taste what I’m actually eating.” I feel that way about spicy Indian food and I feel that way about barbecue too – why are you lathering good meat in all of these ridiculous sauces and rubs? I want to taste the actual meat, not get a mouthful of vinegar, curry powder and tomato sauce. Anyway, yeah – this sounds like a cool series.

Photos courtesy of WENN, cover courtesy of Parade.

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