Padma Lakshmi’s ‘Taste the Nation’ Is a Culinary Celebration of Immigrants
“My mission was to uncover the glorious bounty of food and people in this country that didn’t get the attention they deserved.”
What is American food? That term typically brings to mind the image of hamburgers blanketed in melted cheese, hot dogs dressed in wavy tangles of ketchup and mustard, and fragrant apple pie sealed with a flaky crust. But in a country that has the largest immigrant population in the world, isn’t that a narrow view of what constitutes as American food? Are these the only things we are actually eating?
This is the very question that Padma Lakshmi tackles in her new Hulu series, Taste the Nation. Over 10 episodes, Padma travels across America, from Hawaii to Las Vegas to South Carolina, to taste the food that has never been considered to be American by the masses, but has made its way stateside and nourishes Americans all the same. “I want to hear these stories,” Padma told me on a recent phone call. “I don’t want to hear the same Eurocentric stuff. I’m bored.” Throughout the season, there’s creamy bowls of khao soi, cheesy bean burritos, indigenous three sisters salad, and so many other vibrant flavors. Yes, there’s hot dogs too -- and also an explainer on how those snappy sausages came to the US by way of immigrants.
We spoke to Padma about the recent turmoil in food media, what it means for a dish to be authentic, and how -- no matter the circumstances -- food remains political.
I wanted to start by addressing the racial tension in food media right now. Your show almost felt like a response to that -- whether it was intentional or not. Why did you want to make a show centered on the immigrant experience?
Padma: I’m just tired of hearing immigrants and their contributions vilified by hate-mongering and people who use fear for political gain. I am an immigrant myself. To me, the most exciting things happening in food today are happening because the immigrant community is bringing them to light to a larger audience. All the trends -- whether it’s kabocha or turmeric or daishi -- you know, everything that we think is cool now was brought here by immigrants. So what are we talking about when we say that “immigrants bring crime” or “take [our] jobs” or “rape our women.” Who is doing that exactly?
Yeah, exactly. I also noticed that women are at the forefront of a lot of these stories on the show and I think that in the food industry, whether it be chefs or food media, women are not as lauded as men. What did it mean to you to be in a position to tell these stories as a woman of color yourself?
I have also been frustrated that [my worth] has not been as deeply weighted as my male colleagues who work less than I do frankly. I was sick of it. I really am thankful to Hulu for giving me the opportunity to do this show in the way that I wanted. You know, the Thai episode in particular is one of my favorite episodes and it was a very purposeful decision to make that very female-forward. We wanted to tell a very specific story about Thai immigration -- not just paint it with a big brush and say, “Okay, the most Thai people in America are in Los Angeles so let’s go there.” We thought that that had been covered and we wanted to understand those women were settling here in the state.
It was also a different opportunity for me to look at American history and highlight a time when Americans were welcoming to Thai women. And that story that Ladeen talked about, when her mother-in-law took her under her wing and said, “I know I’m not your mother but you’re welcome here.” She helped her do everything from learn how to balance a checkbook to [getting] a driver’s license. That’s very moving and I wanted to remind people that America actually had a tradition and legacy of welcoming outsiders and welcoming people who do need a safe haven, who do come here looking for a better life. Nobody leaves their own culture and country to come across the world if everything is going great.
"To me, the most exciting things happening in food today are happening because the immigrant community is bringing them to light to a larger audience."
As a Thai immigrant, I definitely felt seen watching it. It’s interesting because you mentioned you wanted to show a time where America was a more welcoming place. I think food is really political in itself, but in the first episode -- the burrito episode -- you talked to that business owner who’s conservative and holds values that maybe [you weren't aligned with].
The show is a very political show. It’s not a cool, lifestyle-y superficial show. That’s not what it was intended to be. It is a subjective worldview, but I knew I would have more credibility with my audience if I also would balance and gave time to listen to another point of view -- which I don’t share -- without trying to editorialize it. Without bending that conversation and trying to convince him to believe the things that I believe which are vastly different than him.
I want to show that we all have our own prejudices. We all love our children, we all think we’re good to our employees. But there’s a definite disconnect between how people behave on the ground with their loved ones and neighbors, and [with] their politics. And I wanted to show they’re connected.
What do you think it means for a food to be “authentic?”
That word, authentic, is really loaded. The show is about giving credit to the source of a lot of the foods we love, while crediting the people who actually make them. What is authentic is honestly dependent on context. Is chop suey authentic Chinese cuisine? Well, it may have been in 1922. Our perception and our eating practices change and evolve. Brandon Jew has a different way of making hoisin sauce by using some of the ingredients that are not Chinese in a new way. That is authentic to his experience growing up as a Chinese-American. And to tell him that it’s not is not the truth, really.
On the other hand, I also have trouble with ethnic food being repackaged and reinterpreted by white journalists that don’t give the source of what they’re doing. It’s a very easy thing to do. It also makes your writing more interesting; it gives your audience context. So if you’re going to create what is obviously a curry because it has a combination of ingredients that are associated with a curry and then don’t call it a curry and pretend like you just invented this thing… that, to me, shows a lack of authenticity.
Nobody does it alone. Nobody invents anything; everything is influenced by your family, by the books you read, the restaurants you go to, the films you see, your college roommate. There’s no weakness in highlighting that; I think it’s actually a strength. To disregard the things that have absolutely affected them and influenced them, from a culture that is outside of their experience, they owe it to their audience to say that. And when they don’t say that and they take credit for another culture’s food and it’s successful only because a white person is talking about it, it’s painful to the rest of us -- who have had all of our lives to assimilate to white culture. I’m a brown woman living in a white man’s world. Food is one of the most male-dominated industries in our country… and I am really sick and tired of people acting like vadouvan is this new thing.
Yeah. You don’t need to name names but we know.
You can probably name them just as well as I can [laughs]. But you know what I’m talking about. I remember having this conversation about vadouvan specifically… somebody was literally insisting that vadouvan is a French spice and I was just like, “Vadouvan is a French name that colonial French people [gave] to a collection of spices they discovered in Pondicherry, South India.” So don’t even tell me what vadouvan is. And I often don’t challenge people if I don’t know my shit. Mostly because I’m insecure [laughs]. So if I do stand up to say something, it’s because I’m convinced 100% that that is the case. And it really pissed me off because that’s what’s been happening in the history of colonialism all over the world. Cultures are raped and pillaged for their gold, for their spices, for their silk and then repurposed. Like all of the sudden they’re the property of that colonial “discovery.”
I’m with you 100%. I always think about conversations I’ve had where people are like, “Oh, well banh mis wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for French baguettes.” And I’m like, “Yeah, maybe, but at what cost of colonizing an entire country?”
You can get in a tizzy about this stuff. My only answer to all of this is see the show, because that is my big fat answer to all of you people.
I feel like the image of hands felt really prevalent throughout the show. What do hands symbolize to you when it comes to food?
That’s such an interesting question and I’ve been on the press junket for a couple of days and I haven’t gotten this question. I think hands are symbolic of a human being’s intention. When I think of hands, I think of my mother bathing me with a bucket in India, or my grandmother moving the dosa stone to make the batter by hand. I think of a bricklayer. I think of my stepfather, who has a farm and grows curry seeds to sell in Indian markets. To me, cooking is a very sensorial, tactile experience. I can see whether something is done by touching it. I can smell whether something is ready. I can hear by the rhythm of how the mustard seeds pop in oil whether they’re going to burn. And so, to me, the hands represent the human experience and intention of a soul -- whether it’s dealing with food or anything else.
"I wanted to remind people that America actually had a tradition and legacy of welcoming outsiders and welcoming people who do need a safe haven, who do come here looking for a better life."
Do you have a favorite food city in America?
I think it has to be my hometown of New York City. And, of course, specifically because we have the largest immigrant population and the most diverse citizenry. I grew up in New York City and when I was little it wasn’t as easy to get ethnic ingredients. My mother and I would go up to Spanish Harlem on the subway to get tamarind, and then we would go down to Chinatown to get Asian vegetables. My mom’s a retired nurse and she was a single parent in New York City so we couldn’t afford to go to expensive restaurants, but we could afford to go to ethnic markets and discover food that way. In search of Indian ingredients, we bumped up against other cultural cuisines -- and that’s why New York is my favorite food city. It is a city that developed my palate. It made me who I am and informed the work that I do.
You executive produced this show. What was your main mission, and watching it now, do you feel like you’ve achieved it?
My mission was to uncover the glorious bounty of food and people in this country that didn’t get the attention they deserved. I wanted to show that that was a positive thing and a strength. My deepest hope is that people will watch it and talk about it to their circles so that I can get greenlit for a second season and I can continue my work in this subject. It’s one that is so bottomless and fascinating to me. I want to hear these stories; I don’t want to hear the same Eurocentric stuff. I’m bored.
After traveling around the country, how would you describe the taste of the nation?
It’s spicy and it’s ever-evolving.
Taste the Nation arrives on Hulu June 18.