Growing up in Queens in the 1970s, Padma Lakshmi remembers eating a spaghetti dish her mother made with upma, an Indian porridge. The Top Chef host and executive producer, who came to the U.S. from India at age 4, says such culinary mash-ups are common in immigrant kitchens.
“Immigrant foods are really interesting, because they’re this third thing: They’re not traditionally like the food in the countries of origin, but they’re not totally Westernized,” she says. “A lot of that, of course, happens because of necessity: When immigrants come here, typically, for the most part, both parents have to work and so they streamline the cooking.”
Lakshmi started out as a model and actress, never intending to have a career in food. But she loved to cook and to collect and write down recipes — especially from her relatives. She decided to pitch a cookbook, Easy Exotic, and was surprised when the publisher signed on.
“I think they wanted to capitalize on the fact that everyone does want to know what a model eats,” she says
More books followed, including the 2016 memoir, Love, Loss, and What We Ate. Now, as the host and creator of Hulu series Taste the Nation, Lakshmi travels around the U.S. to learn how foods from different cultures contribute to American cuisine. Among the places she visits: New York, to talk to her own mother about finding Indian ingredients and produce in Queens decades ago.
On being one of the only South Asian models in American and European fashion magazines
I think that was part of my appeal. I really didn’t start to feel attractive until I went to Europe. I knew I had a pretty face, or whatever, all growing up. But I didn’t feel like I was beautiful, or that kind of beautiful, until I went to Spain and until this person sort of “discovered” me, for lack of a better word, and told me that I could model it. And that happened a couple of times in my career. …
I have a big scar on my arm, which is seven inches long from a car accident I had at 14. I started modeling before the days of retouching. So I got really good at covering it with makeup, but still, it didn’t dawn on me that I could actually make a living from my looks. So the fact that it happened at all was a shock to me. …
I was always the only Indian girl in any casting I went to. And I do think that a lot of the attention I got was because there were no other Indian models. I mean, since then, there are many Indian models and they’ve done way more work than I ever did as a model. But I think just being the first gave me a little bit of a cachet.
On feeling better about her body with age
It’s really funny, because when you’re a brown person and you live in a white world and you see nothing but white images on billboards, on the covers and inside magazines, on TV, you kind of internalize a subconscious self-loathing about your skin color.
And, of course, in Indian culture, there’s a ton of colorism. I remember my grandmother always admonishing me to take an umbrella outside so that I wouldn’t get too much sun. We kids, especially the girls, were discouraged from going out into the sun to play from the hours of 11:30 to 4:30.
And to this day, I still have problems sitting in the sun or playing or in or swimming in the sun because I just feel like it doesn’t seem right. I mean, on the one hand, I think it saved me because they don’t have a lot of sun damage for my age. But on the other hand, those things that get told to you as you’re a young girl and a teenager, they stick with you all your life. And now, you know, at almost 50 years of age, I feel so much better about my body and I feel better about my physical self than I ever have.
On the car accident she survived at 14 and the affect that had on her faith
We were driving on a Sunday and we were on the highway and we were rear-ended and we fell down an embankment and we were trapped in the car. We were cut out of the car by something called the jaws of life, which are big, huge metal cutters. And my parents were airlifted to one hospital and I was taken by ambulance to another. I fractured my hip and I broke my right upper arm, or humerus bone. I also broke my hand because at some point my hand went through the windshield. … My mother broke five ribs and her sternum and her arm as well. And my stepfather broke his leg in four places and his hip in two. It was horrible. We were all homebound and in bed for months afterwards. …
I did lose faith. I think I always vaguely believed in God and I went to the temple when my mother took me. But I’ve always been a very secular person. … I didn’t know what to make of it. …
It was a very, very, very bad car accident. I mean, if you saw the pictures of the car afterward, your stomach would turn. You would think no one could get out of that car accident alive. And yet, here we are. My mom chooses to think of it as, “Well, it was God that saved us from dying in that car accident.” Whereas I said, “If there’s a real God and there’s any omnipotence to them, why did they just prevent it in the first place?”
On being sent back to India at age 7, shortly after telling her mother that her stepfather’s brother had touched her inappropriately
I think my mom just wanted to get me out of this situation quickly. She was also studying for her master’s degree at night and she was a nurse in the daytime. I mean, that was her day job. And, you know, I think now if you talk to her, she would tell you [she] should have kicked him out of our house.
But I don’t think that my stepfather ever believed me. I remember talking to him about it and being very nervous. But I think that they got divorced because he didn’t believe that this was the case.
And so I was on a plane very quickly to India, where I stayed for a year and a half. I did all of third grade and part of fourth grade in India. And my impression was that I spoke up about what happened to me and I was sent away. As a 7-year old, that is what it felt like. That is the evidence I had. If my mother said, “I’m sending you away to keep you safe,” it certainly didn’t [come across] in any deep way. And so I think that went very deep. That experience really left its mark for a whole host of reasons.
On being raped by her 23-year-old boyfriend when she was 16
It was New Year’s Eve and we had gone out and then I was in his apartment. I had just laid down to rest and I woke up to him on top of me trying to penetrate me, and it was very painful. I really didn’t feel I had any leg to stand on. I mean, what was I going to complain about and to whom? I don’t know what would have happened if I had.
I’m also talking about 1986, and the term “date rape” was nowhere in anybody’s vocabulary in ’86. And I think that is really important to remember as well. I don’t know the know if I registered it as rape at the moment. It was certainly traumatic. I certainly didn’t want to be alone with him again and we broke up shortly after that. And I yelled at him in the moment, like, “What are you doing?” And said that it hurt and please get off me. But I don’t think my 16-year-old self identified that as date rape until later.
[Having the vocabulary later to talk about sexual assault] was very helpful to me because I thought there was something I did to invite that, which I obviously hadn’t. I was asleep and I think I knew that I was ashamed enough about what happened, that I lied about my virginity to everyone who wanted to know, I guess. But even to my first boyfriend in college.
So I knew that something bad happened and that I should hide it. But I didn’t know it was date rape until we as a culture started talking about it. And it was then that I started processing it. But even then, I buried it so deep that I just pretended like it didn’t happen. And in a way it didn’t because of how deep I buried it. If I don’t talk about it, it doesn’t exist in my history.
It was really traumatic. It was very physically and emotionally taxing. I had to go to bed for three days. I didn’t leave the house after it was published at all. I remember doing the corrections with the editors as I was going to the opera with my daughter and crying my makeup off as I was reading the edits that the Times wanted. But that was the last thing I did, was take my daughter to see the opera. And then I stayed home and I stayed in bed because I was shaking. Ripping off a 30-something-year-old Band-Aid is a very violent thing to do to yourself.
On ending her memoir by thanking her grandparents for giving her a love of books and cooking
I’m so close to my grandparents because not only did I live with them for that year and a half or two years as a toddler, every summer my mother sent me back for three months to India. So throughout my whole childhood and adolescence, I spent 25 percent of my time in India with them. And my grandmother is a very practical woman and she’s not very affectionate. She’s not very cuddly like most grandmas are. She grew up in a family with 17 siblings. And so she taught me how to be practical and efficient in the kitchen and how to do things properly. She had a great, great palate and sense of cooking.
So I hung around her and at the hem of her sari, I learned about all of these spices and how to use them and what they did, whether you could taste them or not in any dish, because they were used to balance other things, etc. My grandfather was one of the most well-read people I have ever met in my life to this day. He was somebody who quoted [Henry] Wadsworth [Longfellow] verbatim by heart. He loved books. He loved Shakespeare. He loved Americana. He had traveled through America in the ’50s and ’60s for work, and so he had a real affinity for American culture.
So through her, I have my skill as a cook and love of food. And through him, I have my love of books and of being a writer. If you asked me, of all the things I do, if I could say what [I am] in one word, I would say, “I hope I’m a writer.”
Heidi Saman and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.