The “Top Chef” host explores the vibrant cuisines of immigrants in America on her new show
In her new Hulu show, Taste The Nation, Padma Lakshmi showcases America’s vibrant immigrant cuisines. She whisks viewers away to places like Chinatown in San Francisco and the Gullah Geechee community of the coastal Carolinas and addresses injustices that have shaped their food cultures.
The Top Chef host spills the best dish she tried during her escapades, and what she wants viewers to take away from the series.
Wake Up Call: How would you describe “Taste The Nation?” Because it’s certainly much more than just a travel show.
Padma Lakshmi: It’s a show about immigrant America, that uses food as a vehicle to embed itself in different communities and cultures within the United States. We tried to realistically canvas who actually lives in America by going out and meeting them on-the-ground level. I hope that the show addresses the negative rhetoric about immigrants that has bubbled to the surface since 2016. We have had our narratives mangled and distorted by people who have been given a really big megaphone. And this was my way of giving a microphone back to the immigrants who are actually living and working in this country, to tell their own stories.
People make a lot of grand statements about “what America is” and “what America isn’t.” I’m not sure who gets to decide what’s “American” and what’s not, but I wanted to present a show that lets people who live in America actually speak for themselves — to give them a chance to say, this is also America, and in fact, this is where America is being built at the ground level.
What do you think it is about food that gives it the power to unite people?
The way that most people learn about a new culture is through the food. We may not know very much about Thai people, but we sure know we love green curry chicken, or pad thai. I remember there was this moment a couple of years ago when there was a vote on the family separation issue, and people were so upset, and this photo came out of Ted Cruz eating in a Mexican restaurant. The stark contrast of his voting record in the Senate and then this photo of him enjoying his enchiladas — it was a surreal moment for me. I wanted to do something that would allow me to speak politically, without getting up on a soapbox.
I think food is something we can all relate to because it’s a non-threatening subject. Religion is fraught, politics are fraught, healthcare can be fraught, but when you break bread with somebody, you get to know them in a special way. It’s also a beautiful metaphor for humanity. We all need to eat — we all need sustenance for survival. So using that common denominator allowed me to get into these communities because a lot of them are very insular. A lot of people I spoke to didn’t speak much English, and immigrants often don’t want to be interviewed because they’ve learned from experience not to draw attention to themselves. I thought that food was a neutral and comforting way to reach my hand out to these people. Everyone can tell you what their favorite recipe from their grandmother is, and so it is an opening subject that can bridge us to other, more volatile subjects if you work your way there gently by finding common ground in food.
What surprised you the most when filming this series?
The eternal optimism of people. The drive to keep going, and the belief that things will turn out OK. We really need that right now. I’m not a journalist and I don’t usually interview people, so I was very green. I interviewed so many different people. No two interviews were alike, and I found that I had to be really nimble and try to adapt to my subject, rather than trying to bend my subject to my will. I was really thankful and surprised at how willing people were to talk about some really serious and personal subjects that they’d grappled with over the course of their lives here in America.
Was there an episode that you feel you personally learned the most from?
The episode on Gullah Geechee cuisine was very important to me. We tend to cover African American food with a very broad brush, and it’s hardly ever separated from white colonialism. I think it’s very important to understand ancestry, and what was brought here by African enslaved people. The reason we chose to do the episode in Charleston and the Sea Islands is that the historic African American culture there — which is certainly not the only one in this country — is very well preserved. We often tend to say “African American food is southern food or soul food,” but what does that mean?
It was really important to me to understand the contributions of enslaved Africans and their descendants — to attribute that history to whom it belonged. It was one of the most illuminating episodes for me.
What was the best dish you ate?
I think it was the taco! It was so friggin’ good. I’ve duplicated it in my own kitchen for my daughter, and she’s obsessed. The idea that you could flip the tortilla and get a crisp singe on the whole surface of it — why didn’t I ever think of it! The edges of mac and cheese or the edges of a grilled cheese sandwich are the parts that are the most delicious.
But it wasn’t just that, it was that there was so much flavor in a vegetarian taco. It had mushrooms, eggplant, and some salsa — some humble ingredients. And it was divine.
What do you hope that people take away from the show?
If there’s one thing I want people to take away, it’s that immigration is a good thing. It’s something we shouldn’t fear or feel threatened by — in fact it makes our country richer in a plethora of ways. It’s the American way.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
This originally appeared on Medium.