Padma Lakshmi’s new series, Taste the Nation with Padma Lakshmi, premieres on Hulu on Thursday and its release couldn’t be more timely amid nationwide calls for racial equality.
“We could have never known what was coming down the pike with the pandemic, with Black Lives Matter, but I was thinking about these things for a while,” the host and executive producer tells Yahoo Entertainment of the issues tackled on the show. “I think if you talk to many Americans who are Black or people of color or indigenous, they've been thinking about them for a long time too. In fact, we’ve had to think about them for our whole life.”
The unscripted series explores the traditional cuisines of various immigrant groups, but food serves as a window into more complex themes like identity, discrimination and what it means to be an American.
“Food is used as a vehicle to get to some deeper discussions, and oftentimes that discussion is not always easy,” Lakshmi says.
It’s also a personal political statement.
“It’s also an attempt to show the greater American public that immigration is not something to be feared, that it's actually something to be celebrated,” Lakshmi adds. “There's a lot of rhetoric coming out of Washington for the last few years to vilify and fear-monger our attitudes about immigrants. This is my rebuttal to all of that rhetoric.”
The food writer and Top Chef host is no stranger to activism. She co-founded the Endometriosis Foundation of America and serves as an ambassador for the United Nations Development Programme and ACLU, where she focuses on women’s and immigrant’s rights. This new series is Lakshmi’s way of giving a voice to communities whose contributions are often overlooked.
“I wanted to give the microphone to the makers of the foods we love,” she explains. “America has appropriated a lot from a lot of different cultures and it is the very thing that makes American culture a global pantry. But I do think that it's very easy to give credit where credit is due.
“I think what bothers many people of color in the food industry is that we've been writing about this and we are experts on our own cuisine,” Lakshmi continues, “but when a white person discovers curry or turmeric, then all of a sudden it's the next best thing.”
Lakshmi laments the lack of diversity in food media, which has become a hot topic recently. “It's hard for me to read recipes by the same five white people because our country's more interesting than that,” she says. “I wanted immigrants to be able to speak for themselves and tell their story because it is the story of America. And it is a story that hasn't fully been told.”
Having immigrated to the U.S. from India at 4 years old, Lakshmi’s experience puts her on shared ground with many of her subjects in Taste the Nation. In an episode shot in Los Angeles entitled “Where the Kabob is Hot,” Iranian-American chef Debb Michail shares the embarrassment of bringing Persian food to school in her lunch box, an anecdote to which Lakshmi can personally relate.
“I was terrified to open that lunch box because Indian food is not the most visually appealing food and it's also very pungent,” Lakshmi recalls. “If you're around kids who have PB&J sandwiches with the crust cut off, it doesn’t make you the most popular kid. It underlined that I was not like other kids.”
Lakshmi even went as far as temporarily changing her name while in high school. “I was never American enough for American kids, and I was never Indian enough for Indian kids,” she explains. “I inhabited this funky third space that now as an adult, I can reflect and say, that third space is what made you think differently and view the world through two cultures.”
The host’s Indian heritage is the focus of a New York-based episode entitled “Don’t Mind If I Dosa,” which begins with a debate between American pancakes and Indian dosas with her daughter. It’s a lighthearted conversation about food preferences that underscores deeper matters.
Lakshmi says she’s always had the tough conversations about race with her daughter.
“This is not something that she's heard about for the first time right now. She's heard about it all through her life in an age-appropriate way,” Lakshmi says of her daughter with venture capitalist Adam Dell.
“What I try to tell Krishna is that you are incredibly privileged. Even though she's half Indian, she presents white. She takes after her dad in that way. And so I tell her you can never know what that's like, but you can actively do something about it. The responsibility is yours, not anybody else’s.”
In addition to the immigrant communities Lakshmi visited in the series, she also spent a week filming in the Navajo Nation, a community devastated by COVID-19. The lack of access to fresh, healthy foods has led to increased health risks for the Navajo population.
Lakshmi traces that troubled history through a food considered iconic of Native American cuisine. “Fry bread is a really tough topic because it’s a product of the trail of tears,” she explains. “When these indigenous people were uprooted and asked to walk in the heat and dust, the only thing they had was flour. Milled flour is not indigenous to North America and they don’t cook with rendered fat.”
In the episode, Lakshmi winds up on a foraging expedition and even chows down on a packrat. “What was here before the white people got here?” Lakshmi inquires. “I really needed to start at the beginning and set the record straight for myself.”
In an episode set in South Carolina, Lakshmi visits the Gullah Geechee, descendants of enslaved West Africans. It became the episode she is most proud of, and yet another timely look at a population that is preserving a painful past.
“I lobbied hard for that episode because we don't consider African-Americans descendants of immigrants. They clearly are a product of forced migration. I wanted to look at their cultural history independent from slavery or their colonial masters.”
Again, the experience was eye-opening.“I learned so much and I should have known this stuff,” she says. “It wasn't taught to Americans in U.S. history class and it should have been.”