Padma Lakshmi's career has taken her in many directions, but the through-line has been her passion for food. Padma had early success in modeling and acting, becoming known as India's first supermodel (Padma was born in India, moving to the United States when she was a child). In 1999, Padma got her first gigs hosting food shows--The Food Network's Padma's Passport and Planet Food. In 2006, Padma became the host of Bravo's Top Chef, which is now in its 17th season and which she now also executive produces. Padma's newest project is Taste the Nation, a Hulu docuseries that takes her to immigrant and indigineous communities around the United States to explore the ever-evolving American palate.
Padma is also a prolific author, from her cookbooks, Easy Exotic and Tangy Tart Hot and Sweet, to her New York Times bestselling food memoir, Love, Loss, and What We Ate, to the comprehensive The Encyclopedia of Spices & Herbs: An Essential Guide to the Flavors of the World.
Recorded remotely during the coronavirus pandemic, NPR's Ask Me Another host Ophira Eisenberg and house musician Jonathan Coulton talk to Padma about the evolution of American taste, doing improv with her daughter, eating liver ganache on Top Chef, and being a supertaster.
Then, she takes on an Ask Me Another challenge where she helps Ophira and Jonathan figure out what to do with the weird ingredients hidden in their pantries.
On Maintaining The Integrity Of Top Chef
"There's no fraternization between me and the chefs during the contest. The only time I have any interaction with them is in the kitchen or wherever we're filming, with a camera running. Because we never want anybody to think that it's in any way rigged or influenced or even manipulated. Which, for us, it's a really big sticking point, because I know for a fact that a lot of other cooking shows will sometimes bend the rules a little bit, because one person has a better personality, or whatever. And we just don't do that. And I think that's why we've remained the industry standard."
On Being A Supertaster
"I always knew I could sense the different flavors of a dish, and I think that's why I'm a good cook. If you saw me in the kitchen, I'm no technical master, you know. It's just that my palate can detect different flavors, and now I realize why. Because supertasters have extra taste buds that non-supertasters do not have."
On The Evolution Of American Food
"What I've found out is that it's a microcosm of all the world's foods and that it is an ever-evolving organism. That it is shaped by waves and waves of different generations of people that have come here from all over the world. And then, collectively, as a nation, we have a developed taste. We love Italian food. We love Thai food. So, the collective American palate has actually gone way more in the spicy direction since, say, when I was a child in the '70s and '80s. And so, now Americans really do like spicy food. Even if they have mashed potatoes and meatloaf, they will usually put Sriracha on it. And that's brought here by other people."
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JONATHAN COULTON, BYLINE: This is NPR's ASK ME ANOTHER. I'm Jonathan Coulton. Here's your host, Ophira Eisenberg.
OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:
Thanks, Jonathan. It's time to welcome our special guest. She's been the host of the Bravo cooking competition show "Top Chef" since 2006, and her new Hulu show "Taste The Nation" is out now. Padma Lakshmi, hello.
PADMA LAKSHMI: Hi. How you doing, Ophira?
EISENBERG: I'm OK. I'm all right. I'm excited. I think a lot of people might not know that you are a comedy lover. And I read that in 2009, after you already had been hosting "Top Chef" for a couple of years, you actually enrolled in a class at UCB to take some improv.
LAKSHMI: Yes. Yes, I did. I was a theater major and I was an actress before I got my gig at "Top Chef." And so I love improv. People don't really know me for that anymore. And I just was craving that. So yeah, I signed up for one of their intensive seminars. I actually went through the program with a couple of them. I got to level three. And then we performed.
LAKSHMI: It's no more, sadly. But we performed at the UCB Theater. And it was a lot of fun.
EISENBERG: So have you ever thought since then that maybe you should gather a few people and start an improv group?
LAKSHMI: Well, right now, I have my plate filled with two shows.
EISENBERG: Yeah, right. Come on.
LAKSHMI: And two books.
EISENBERG: But everyone has loads of time right now. Everyone has loads...
LAKSHMI: I mean, I would love to. I have since then done other things as a guest...
LAKSHMI: ...With different groups, like ASSSSCAT and others from UCB. So, you know, I think if I want to, it's there for me. I just - I think at some point in your life, you have to grow up and just pick a lane or two.
EISENBERG: Or two. Yeah.
LAKSHMI: Yeah. And so that's where I'm at right now. But, I mean, God forbid either of the shows go away. I hope not. But, you know, I would love to go back at that - go back into that. It is my first love. I mean, one of the things we do at home as a parlor game is do improv. My daughter is 10, and she's very good at improv.
EISENBERG: Oh, yeah?
LAKSHMI: Yeah. So we do it. The only problem is that there's no end in sight. Like...
LAKSHMI: We never - you know, we're like "SNL." We can never figure out how to end the scene.
LAKSHMI: And at some point, I'll just, like, pull the rip cord and be like, OK, that's enough. We've beat this horse to death.
EISENBERG: That's an ending. That's a natural ending in some ways.
EISENBERG: You know? Yeah. Right. You've been hosting "Top Chef" since 2006. Now, contractually, you are the person, as the host, who has to taste and try every single dish prepared every single episode.
LAKSHMI: That's correct. Yeah. Well, because we're a game show, right?
LAKSHMI: So I have to because I can't judge the chefs unless I taste their food. And so we take that very seriously. You know, there's no fraternization between me and the chefs during the contest. The only time I have any interaction with them is in the kitchen or wherever we're filming with a camera running because we never want anybody to think that it's in any way rigged or influenced or even manipulated, which, for us, it's a really big sticking point because I know for a fact that a lot of other cooking shows will sometimes bend the rules a little bit because one person has a better personality...
LAKSHMI: ...You know - or whatever. And we just don't do that. And I think that's why we've remained the industry standard because, you know, chefs talk, and they go away and they tell people what happens on set. And, also, I never want the competition to not be 100% fair. We put a lot of time into thinking about that.
EISENBERG: Yeah. So what does that do to your palate, though? Has it become desensitized? Is it more sensitive?
LAKSHMI: It - you know, I always had a sensitive palate, even when I was a toddler, and it explains a lot of things about my childhood now. Once I...
EISENBERG: Wait a second. Even when you were a toddler?
LAKSHMI: Yes. Because I'm a super taster.
EISENBERG: Oh, that's (laughter)...
COULTON: Oh, a super taster.
EISENBERG: And they knew this - you knew this at a young age. You displayed this immediately.
LAKSHMI: I mean, I didn't know I was a super taster...
LAKSHMI: ...Until a few years ago, when this Italian researcher gave me this little tab test. But not that kind of tab. But, you know...
LAKSHMI: ...I always knew I could sense the different flavors of a dish, and I think that's why I'm a good cook. If you saw me in the kitchen, I'm no technical master, you know? It's just that my palate can detect different flavors, and now I realized why - because, you know, super tasters have extra taste buds that nonsuper tasters do not have.
EISENBERG: Yeah. When you became an executive producer on "Top Chef" a few years ago, did you use that power to change any of the challenges or, you know, the stunts or the themed weeks? Were you like, never again will we have liver ganache? Like...
LAKSHMI: I hate that [expletive] liver ganache.
LAKSHMI: After so many years and traveling the globe, it is still the worst thing I have eaten. But...
EISENBERG: And it was a surprise. I think that was the worst part of it, right? It was a surprise. It was - just to get everyone on the same page, if our listeners don't know, it was a - well, it was a contestant's dessert, right?
LAKSHMI: Well, they had to team chocolate with something savory.
LAKSHMI: And so, you know, Ilan, who wound up winning that season, embedded a little morsel of liver into a beautiful, decadent, perfectly executed chocolate ganache.
LAKSHMI: Except there was this mystery prize. You know, it's like a - it's like you meet a beautiful man who's so nice to you, and then you get to know him and you realize he's psycho. That's what, like...
LAKSHMI: Or woman. You know, that's kind of what that chocolate ganache experience was like. But the one episode that we don't do anymore - and I don't know if it's just because I've been bellyaching about it for so long - is this fear factor episode - or what I call a fear factor episode. It was always too early in the season, also. But we had a bunch of weird mystery meats that people had to do stuff with. I have eaten crocodile, rattlesnake, ostrich, duck testicles, bull's testicles.
LAKSHMI: Like, you know, we've just had this cornucopia of meats. And I've just put the kibosh on that.
EISENBERG: Right. It does sound like the ultimate prank.
EISENBERG: So in your new Hulu docuseries "Taste The Nation," you travel all over the country, and you ask the question, what is American food? So what have you found out about what is American food?
LAKSHMI: What I've found out is that it is a microcosm of all of the world's foods and that it is an ever-evolving organism, that it is shaped by waves and waves of different generations of people that have come here from all over the world. And then, collectively, as a nation, we have a developed taste. We love Italian food. We love Thai food. So the collective American palate has actually gone way more in the spicy direction since, say, when I was a child in the '70s and '80s. And so now Americans really do like spicy food. They're not - even if they have mashed potatoes and meatloaf, they will usually put sriracha on it. And that's brought here by other people. So, you know, the indigenous food of America, like what actual American food is...
LAKSHMI: ...Is beans, corn, squash - the three sisters. And that's why we go, also in "Taste The Nation," to visit the San Carlos Reservation - it's an Apache Reservation in Arizona - and see, you know, what was here before European colonialists came and added flour, added sugar, added lard? You know, we always say, like, oh, it's as American as apple pie. Apple pie ain't American. It's not.
EISENBERG: Right. So I don't even know if there's an answer to this. But right now is there, like, an ingredient or a condiment or a spice that is quintessentially American?
LAKSHMI: Sumac. Sumac is really American, but it's not today. But, you know, originally, the Native Americans used to flavor their food with sumac. It's a beautiful vermilion berry that gets dried. You know, the - mostly, the way we add acid or souring agents to food is with liquid, like lemon juice...
LAKSHMI: ...Or vinegar. And this allows you another way to do it. Like, we make - sometimes we make sumac-dusted pita chips in the oven.
EISENBERG: That sounds amazing. We're all cooking so much more at home these days. Some people have learned how to cook over this amount of time. So this builds into our ASK ME ANOTHER challenge. Jonathan and I have gone into our pantries and found ingredients that we have lying around and we don't know what to do with. I don't know what Jonathan has brought; he doesn't know what I brought. We're going to reveal an ingredient. You're going to give us some ideas about how we could incorporate these two ingredients into a dish.
EISENBERG: And if you also want to add something from the imaginary ASK ME ANOTHER pantry, you could just go into it and grab anything you want...
LAKSHMI: How great.
EISENBERG: ...To add to this.
EISENBERG: So I've got my bag. Jonathan, do you have your bag?
COULTON: I do have a bag.
EISENBERG: OK. So on the count of three, should we just reveal something...
COULTON: Yeah, I'll just pull something out.
EISENBERG: ...And we'll talk it through?
EISENBERG: OK. Ready?
COULTON: Here we go.
EISENBERG: One, two, three.
EISENBERG: What do you have?
COULTON: I have a two-pound bag of cocoa nibs.
LAKSHMI: That's a lot of cocoa nibs.
COULTON: It's a lot of cocoa nibs.
EISENBERG: All right. I have a bag of wild rice.
LAKSHMI: Great. I mean, the way to use them together is to make a black-chocolate rice pudding.
LAKSHMI: So it would be, like, a really cool goth rice pudding.
LAKSHMI: So it'd be made with your rice, and you would boil the rice and then drain it and then boil it again with condensed milk and then - or whole milk or heavy cream, whatever you had. If you used whole milk or heavy cream, you could add sugar to that or agave or whatever. And then you would add his cocoa nibs and stir slowly and just stay at the stove and make something out of that. As far as spices, I would just add a touch of cinnamon and some cardamom. But I would keep it super-duper simple. But it would look gorgeous on the plate or in a little shallow bowl. And you could call it black rice pudding, and you could just put a little thing of whipped cream on the top.
EISENBERG: That sounds - I mean, I want to make that immediately.
LAKSHMI: (Laughter). You can...
COULTON: That's impressive.
EISENBERG: So also, Jonathan, I like the fact that that cocoa nibs package has been opened, as if someone just stuck their hand in...
EISENBERG: ...Just to throw some in their mouth.
COULTON: Yeah. Well, so this is the thing - is a lot of these ingredients are not ingredients that I have brought into the house. I don't know who bought this two-pound bag of cocoa nibs and what they did with a tiny amount of it and why it is still here.
COULTON: But I have it. So...
COULTON: All right.
EISENBERG: That was extremely impressive. Let's try this again.
COULTON: Ready for another one?
EISENBERG: Yeah. Ready?
EISENBERG: One, two, three.
LAKSHMI: Ooh, lima beans.
COULTON: Can of lima beans. I have a bag of chia seeds (laughter).
LAKSHMI: Oh, jeez.
COULTON: This is a going to be a yummy dish.
EISENBERG: Whoa. Yeah. Blech (ph) - gross.
LAKSHMI: No, I mean, I love lima beans. I would prefer that people buy frozen lima beans. But, you know, listen - I remember when there was a hurricane, and, you know, we didn't have electricity here in downtown New York for five days.
LAKSHMI: And by the fifth day, it got pretty Grey Gardens at my house.
LAKSHMI: So I get the need for having some canned foods around. But the first thing I would do with the lima beans is open them, put them in a strainer or colander and run ice-cold water, you know, through them to get all that schmutz off. And then I would even just put them in the fridge for half an hour so they lose some of their mushiness.
LAKSHMI: And then what did you have? Chia seeds?
COULTON: Chia seeds. I don't even know what you do with chia seeds.
LAKSHMI: They need stuff to swell up. So...
LAKSHMI: What I would say is - OK. This is a weird dish, but just...
EISENBERG: (Laughter) Of course, yeah. This can't be anything less than weird.
COULTON: Call it big bean, little bean.
LAKSHMI: OK. Yes, exactly. So I guess if these are all...
EISENBERG: Lima seeds.
LAKSHMI: Yeah. If this is all I had, what I would do is soak the chia seeds in coconut milk - unsweetened coconut milk. This is very important, OK? So let that go overnight. Then I would make a porridge. I would make a savory porridge. And I would saute onions, garlic and ginger and then put a little bit of turmeric in there. And depending on your heat level, you could use a little curry powder or just, you know, some black pepper or crushed red chili, you know, depending on your taste. And then I would add another can of unsweetened coconut milk to that, and then I would fry the lima beans with nothing but chili and salt.
LAKSHMI: And then I would sprinkle the fried lima beans over the savory chia and coconut porridge.
LAKSHMI: Oh, add some cilantro and lime juice.
EISENBERG: I'm actually - now I'm making this. You understand.
LAKSHMI: I have no idea how these things - I'm pulling these out of thin air. I don't - you know?
EISENBERG: No, it's incredible. It's totally amazing.
COULTON: Yeah. It's amazing.
EISENBERG: All right.
COULTON: I'll send you these chia seeds right away if you're - you can...
EISENBERG: Yes, please do.
EISENBERG: OK. Should we do one more?
COULTON: Yeah, let's do one more.
EISENBERG: OK. All right. One, two...
COULTON: Two, three.
EISENBERG: ...Three. This is...
COULTON: What is that?
EISENBERG: These are...
LAKSHMI: Is that sunflower seeds?
EISENBERG: They're tamari pumpkin seeds.
LAKSHMI: Ooh, those are cool.
COULTON: I have a jar of pomegranate molasses.
LAKSHMI: Oh, I love pomegranate molasses. That's an easy one.
COULTON: Oh, all right.
LAKSHMI: We're going to make a big salad, OK?
LAKSHMI: You're going to get spinach leaves, sorrel leaves and romaine hearts and chop them up. You are also going to roast off some fennel. And then now we're going to make our dressing. So basically, I want you to get really good olive oil and some yuzu, which is a Japanese citrus fruit - you can get it in bottles - and then pomegranate molasses. You're going to mix those three things up, and then you're going to add to this dressing some za'atar. It's made of sesame and wild thyme.
And then you're going to pull the fennel out. Let the fennel cool and crisp up. Keep the oven on. Put the pumpkin seeds in the same pan. There'll be a little bit of residual olive oil in there, and just rub it around. And then you're going to drizzle some maple syrup and chili powder and a little bit of salt, which is going to give you a hot and sweet pumpkin seed brittle.
LAKSHMI: And then - so - and then you're going to - the last thing you're going to do so the salad doesn't get soggy is you're going to put that roasted fennel on top of the greens. And then you're going to crumble that brittle up, and then you're going to put the dressing on. Toss that all up. And if you just grill some flank steak or chicken or shrimp, you can throw it on there, and it's a meal.
EISENBERG: That is - it's so amazing.
COULTON: I also realized that I am completely starving right now.
EISENBERG: I know, right?
LAKSHMI: I have that effect on people. I'm sorry.
EISENBERG: That was incredible. I mean, I - we expected a lot, but that was far beyond anything from my wildest dreams of you just telling us what we could do with some random stuff.
LAKSHMI: Most of my recipes are born exactly this way. It's me MacGyvering (ph) in the kitchen, going, OK, what the heck can I make out of, you know, a sad box of couscous and two aging zucchini rolling around in my crisper in the fridge, you know?
LAKSHMI: And that's how the best recipes are done.
EISENBERG: Thank you so much, Padma. Of course, I am enjoying "Taste The Nation." It's available right now on Hulu. Thanks so much for joining us today, Padma.
LAKSHMI: Thank you. Take care, guys.
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EISENBERG: ASK ME ANOTHER's house musician is Jonathan Coulton.
COULTON: Hey. My name anagrams to thou jolt a cannon.
EISENBERG: Our puzzles are written by our staff along with Matt Foster and senior writer Karen Lurie with additional material by Emily Winter. ASK ME ANOTHER is produced by Travis Larchuk, Kiarra Powell (ph), Nancy Saechao, James Barber (ph) and Rommel Wood. Our senior supervising producer is Rachel Neel, and our bosses' bosses are Steve Nelson and Anya Grundmann. Thanks to our production partner WNYC. I'm her ripe begonias.
COULTON: Ophira Eisenberg.
EISENBERG: And this was ASK ME ANOTHER from NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.