Padma Lakshmi’s ‘Taste the Nation’ explores immigrant cuisine

(CNN) — What do ceviche, pad thai and scorching canines have in frequent?

They’re all meals immigrants dropped at the United States. And they’re amongst the many meals featured in Padma Lakshmi’s “Taste the Nation.”

In her 10-episode sequence streaming on Hulu, the cookbook creator, mannequin and longtime “Top Chef” host is tackling a troublesome query.

“What exactly is American food?” she asks in the present’s opening credit. “And what makes us American?”

Lakshmi got here to the United States from India when she was Four years previous. And there’s one key ingredient she argues makes American meals nice: immigration.

To make her case, Lakshmi travels throughout the United States, specializing in totally different cuisines — and the individuals behind them — in every episode.

She samples burritos as border surveillance helicopters hover overhead in El Paso, Texas. She dines on dosas and swaps tales about rising up Indian-American with former US Attorney Prett Bharara in New York. She cooks kabobs and wanders by Persian market aisles in Los Angeles.

And alongside her journey, Lakshmi factors out that meals now assumed to be American have immigrant roots. As she excursions Milwaukee in an episode dubbed “The All American Weiner,” she notes that even famed meat firm founder Oscar Mayer immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1873.

Gullah Geechee cuisine in Charleston, South Carolina, Chinese cuisine in San Francisco, Native American cuisine in Arizona, Peruvian cuisine in New Jersey, Thai cuisine in Las Vegas and Japanese cuisine in Honolulu are additionally on the menu on this season of “Taste the Nation.”

Lakshmi has been a vocal critic of President Trump and a distinguished advocate for immigrant rights since he took workplace. But she’s hoping her present, like the meals it options, can be a bridge crossing the political divide.

“The show was designed for people who don’t think like me, who don’t think that immigration is a good thing and are afraid of it or threatened by it. … I hope that this show gives them a clearer idea of what immigration feels like and looks like in a human way, on the ground, in people’s daily lives,” she says.

Lakshmi spoke with CNN this week about her personal immigrant expertise, how eating places she visited are faring amid the coronavirus pandemic and the locations and cuisines she’d prefer to discover subsequent. The interview has been edited for size and readability.

Every episode of “Taste the Nation” begins with you holding a photograph of your self as a 4-year-old who simply immigrated to the US. What do you bear in mind about these first days in America and what they had been like for you? And how do you are feeling like that point formed who you’re at the moment?

It was very thrilling to return to New York as a 4-year-old from India. I used to be, in fact, very completely happy to be joined with my mom. I had been separated from her for 2 years after I was a toddler. So that additionally informs my fascinated by this difficulty.

Padma Lakshmi and her mother, Vijaya Lakshmi, shortly after she immigrated to the United States from India.

Courtesy Padma Lakshmi

I believed that New York was an thrilling, great place. I bear in mind her taking me to the native A&P Market. And I bear in mind considering, “Oh, my God. Look at all this stuff.” The outlets that my grandmother and I went to in South India had been actually small. They had one or two selections for what you wanted. So all of that abundance actually made a mark on me. At that point in India in the 70s, there was one sort of sliced white bread…it was a knock-off of Wonder Bread, proper all the way down to the colours and the packaging. But we walked down this bread aisle and there have been at the very least 15-20 totally different selections, simply from the sliced breads. I’d by no means seen English muffins earlier than. All of these items had been simply so overwhelming.

And there is a second after I go to the Tehran Market in the Persian episode (of “Taste the Nation”), taking a look at every part as a result of I’ve by no means been to a particularly Persian grocery retailer earlier than. And it is the identical feeling I had as a toddler of being completely overstimulated and never understanding the place to look. It’s a type of the Disneyland of meals in each cases. So I’m glad I have not misplaced my childhood appreciation of a meals market.

What is it prefer to be launching a present that focuses largely on eating places and touring round the US and immigration at a time when due to this pandemic, lots of people cannot journey, plenty of eating places are struggling and immigration has mainly floor to a halt?

It’s very unusual to be selling something at the moment when there are such a lot of urgent points in our nation to handle. We filmed this present final summer time, but it surely looks like a lifetime in the past. I hope that the present will permit individuals to journey vicariously and eat out just a little bit by the present and thru the locations I’m going.

In the first episode of "Taste the Nation," Padma Lakshmi cooks with Emiliano Marentes, the Mexican-American owner of ELEMI, a restaurant in El Paso, Texas.

In the first episode of “Taste the Nation,” Padma Lakshmi cooks with Emiliano Marentes, the Mexican-American proprietor of ELEMI, a restaurant in El Paso, Texas.

Dominic Valente/Hulu

What’s occurring to the restaurant trade is devastating. But we are going to rebuild. They will come again. We do not know in what kind. Many is not going to come again. I’ve been in contact with a handful of the individuals and eating places that we go to on the present to simply test in on them and see how they’re doing. Some are open for takeout. Some are open for supply or curbside pickup. Some are nonetheless shuttered as a result of they do not consider that they’ve a strategy to make meals with out placing their workers in danger.

I hope that in time of upheaval, and essential rebellion, meals may be an instance, a optimistic instance of what is nice about immigration and what’s nice about inclusivity and variety and why we’d like all these totally different nationalities. To be capable of provide them a haven and an opportunity at a greater life will give us the capability to resume and refresh our financial system and our tradition. And we’d like that.

In plenty of episodes, you chat with individuals about their struggles rising up in the US and attempting to stroll a tightrope between two cultures. Former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara talks about being bullied as a child, and the way he knew individuals rising up who’d quite be mistaken for an additional ethnicity than admit they had been Indian. And you inform him that you just modified your title briefly in highschool, to Angelique. Why was it essential so that you can deliver up that second in your life and points like this as a part of the present?

Because I believe it is telling. You know, it is a results of a symptom of not feeling completely accepted and welcome. And, you recognize, it is one thing I’m sort of embarrassed about, but it surely’s one thing that I wanted to disclose to be able to be truthful with my very own story in that episode, as a lot as I’m asking different individuals, in different episodes and communities, to be truthful about their expertise and private historical past.

It additionally permits all the individuals I went to highschool with to know that it is me.

When you made that call at the moment to vary your title, why did you do this?

I believe my title is fairly simple to pronounce, possibly not my final title, however actually my first title. But individuals mangle all of it the time, together with each instructor who ever known as attendance at the starting of every college yr in every class. So it was only a strategy to keep away from that. And it was the solely factor I might consider to make me much less totally different, extra approachable, extra the identical. I do not know — it actually did not work. I nonetheless seemed like I look and nonetheless was the individual I used to be — and am. But I believe whenever you’re a susceptible adolescent woman, you simply need to appear non-threatening, or non-strange.

In the present, you do not gloss over a few of the shameful chapters of American historical past which might be related to a lot of the wealthy culinary traditions that you just’re highlighting, like Japanese internment camps or pressured migration and enslavement of individuals from West Africa or the Chinese Exclusion Act. Why did you resolve to take that strategy?

History issues. It’s essential to know that the meals we love have plenty of baggage connected to them, and it does not imply we should not love them or cannot recognize them and revel in them. But we should always perceive the origins of our collective cuisine on this nation, as a result of if you happen to perceive how meals advanced in America, you perceive how America advanced. And I believe that is fascinating.

I’ve all the time been a historical past nerd and a meals nerd. So I simply took a raffle that different individuals would discover it fascinating too. I didn’t need to do one other meals present that was simply sort of simple, breezy and lifestyle-y, for lack of a greater phrase. I believed there have been already a few of these round and so they sort of bore me now. There’s plenty of nice meals programing. I simply wished mine to be in as a lot as attainable what I might need to watch. And it’s.

In the season's finale, Lakshmi explores the influence of Japanese culture in Honolulu. Along the way, she slings fish, rolls sushi and visits vast sugar cane fields.

In the season’s finale, Lakshmi explores the affect of Japanese tradition in Honolulu. Along the means, she slings fish, rolls sushi and visits huge sugar cane fields.

Dominic Valente/Hulu

A theme that runs by plenty of the episodes is the relationship between moms and daughters. And your individual mother and daughter even seem in a single episode. Why did you need to embody them in the present?

The present highlights data of tradition being handed down from moms to kids as a result of that is what truly occurs in most houses, particularly immigrant houses. It’s the means that we join our youngsters to our tradition the most. I felt it might have been hypocritical to ask different households and communities to be susceptible and permit me to embed myself of their houses, of their kitchens and actually ask some very deep, private questions, with out being prepared to try this for my circle of relatives or life.

A variety of immigrant communities are very insular. And plenty of them do not need to speak about their very own households or experiences as a result of they’ve realized the onerous means. They’re embarrassed or they suppose that it is going to be ridiculed or used towards them. And so asking these individuals — a few of whom additionally do not converse English fluently — to reveal themselves on this means was a giant ask on my half. And as a result of they trusted me, I wanted to belief my viewers. I wanted to try this as nicely and never be guarded. And I believe that the present is successful due to individuals’s willingness to exit on a limb for me.

A childhood photo of Lakshmi with her mom, who cooks alongside her in the "Taste the Nation" episode focused on Indian cuisine in New York.

A childhood picture of Lakshmi along with her mother, who cooks alongside her in the “Taste the Nation” episode targeted on Indian cuisine in New York.

Courtesy Padma Lakshmi

If you have got an opportunity to do one other season of “Taste the Nation,” what different kinds of meals would you prefer to discover?

I’d like to go to Dearborn, Michigan, to speak to the totally different Arab communities there as a result of, you recognize, there’ve been layers of immigration for the final 100 years, began by Henry Ford, who was searching for new manufacturing facility staff for his auto vegetation.

I’d additionally like to go to Alaska. I shot in Alaska for a “Top Chef” finale years in the past. And I liked it. And it is a actually unusual and delightful place that not lots of people on the mainland get to go to. And there’s this enormous Filipino group there. I’d actually, actually prefer to go in and uncover that. The local weather of Alaska year-round in comparison with the local weather of the Philippines, that may be very totally different. So I believe that is an fascinating look.

What is one factor you realized whereas filming “Taste the Nation” that basically stunned you?

You know, in any meals present — “Top Chef” included, or “Planet Food,” or something that I’ve accomplished — you all the time have one meals that you just’re like, that was good, however I needn’t eat that once more. But I’ve to say, I didn’t come throughout that. I actually, genuinely loved all of the dishes I used to be launched to, together with the pack rat (which Lakshmi samples in the episode specializing in Native American cuisine). I used to be fortunate, as a result of I’ve no poker face.

Given all the stuff you realized making this present and all the many chapters of your life main as much as this second, if you happen to might discuss to 4-year-old Padma proper now or to 16-year-old Angelique, what would you inform her?

I might say every part takes longer than you suppose. And life is gorgeous. And you will see your means most by being who you actually are.

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