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‘Top Chef’ host celebrates food of immigrants, Indigenous people

Padma Lakshmi would like to talk about cheating. It always starts with her eye catching an irresistible, heart-stopping, cool … tub of ricotta cheese.

“My idea of a cheat meal is this weird recipe,” the “Top Chef” host says. “It’s half enchiladas, half lasagna and all cheese. The dish has pepper jack cheese, Muenster cheese, ricotta, queso fresco, plus fresh green tomatillo sauce. It’s made with layers.”

“Did I mention the ricotta?” the Emmy-winning 49-year-old author and TV host jokes. “It’s baked, decadent and delicious. I have to box and jump rope for two hours the next day, but it’s all worth it.”

So is her new docuseries, “Taste the Nation” (now streaming on Hulu), which has Lakshmi — who emigrated from India to the U.S. at age 4 — exploring the cuisine of 10 immigrant and Indigenous communities across America.

Review-Journal: How are you dealing with Sundays in quarantine?

Padma Lakshmi: I’m cooking! I’m cooking in pajamas! Cooking in ratty T-shirts! The cooking has been a silver lining. I’m getting more unstructured time with my daughter now (10-year-old Krishna). We gather in the kitchen. We just cook and cook at home, making simple family favorites without worrying about time. The joy is, I don’t have to go out to a meeting. I’m here; she’s here. That’s beautiful. Our goal is to try a different ethnic food every night to really change it up. We will do a few TikTok dance videos for fun and for exercise.

What inspired your new Hulu series?

I wanted to tell the stories of everyday people living in our country, what it means to be an immigrant, what it means to be American, and who gets to decide what American food is … This show is a great way to explore this topic without getting on a soapbox. I talk about my own immigrant experience, but I also speak to other people. I believe the best way to prove my point is to let those communities speak for themselves and tell their own stories.

Many all-American foods didn’t originate in America, right?

Many American foods aren’t American at all — like apple pie. Not one ingredient is from North America — not the apples or the cinnamon or the lard, butter or milled flour. Foods we think of as American have been brought here by other people. Oscar Mayer was a German immigrant and he brought hot dogs here. Every generation comes here to seek a better life and they bring their foods with them. This is also what makes America so unique, and fuels our economy, and fuels a diverse food culture.

You had a hard time when you were a little girl emigrating with your mom from India.

I was terrified to open my Tupperware because of the curry smell. I love Indian food, but the other kids were so mean. They would say, “What’s that? It stinks! You’re the girl with the stinky food!” It was so hard. It’s also why I make sure to create the most amazing lunches for my daughter. Her teacher wrote me and said, “I wish you were making lunches for me! They smell so good!”

How did you deal with tasting different foods when you came here?

At first I found it hard to eat a lot of typically American foods. It was the 1970s and my mom would always take me to restaurants where at least they had rice, so I could eat something that was familiar. We went to a lot of Chinese and Mexican places. There I was ordering the rice. I’d always ask for extra Tabasco or soy sauce to really spice it up. It was the only way in those days that I could concoct something that seemed edible.

Was there any American food that you disliked at first?

Peanut butter. As a child, I thought it had such a weird texture and odd taste. It wasn’t totally sweet. It wasn’t totally salty. Plus, what was the deal with it sticking to the roof of your mouth? Of course, now I love peanut butter, and my palate has learned to enjoy that combination of salty-sweet.

How are you avoiding gaining The COVID-19, as people are calling it?

My general rule is, if we eat something really decadent one night, the next dinner has to be a really healthy one. For example, last night we had lentils, rice and cauliflower. It was a simple Indian dish that was so delicious. That was on the menu because the previous evening, we indulged in the rich chicken and dumplings recipe. I think the key is mixing it up, so you don’t feel denied.

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