Roots and Spices
Padma Lakshmi talks about her books, her philanthropic work and how her time in India has influenced her writing.
Padma Lakshmi is an Indian American actress, model, businesswoman, food expert and award-winning author. She is the Emmy-nominated host of Bravo’s competitive cooking reality show “Top Chef.” Lakshmi is also the co-founder of the Endometriosis Foundation of America, which has educated over 16,000 teenagers on this devastating illness. In 2016, she received the Ellis Island Medal of Honor of the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations, which pays homage to the immigrant experience and the contribution made to America by immigrants and their children.
Lakshmi visited Chennai, Mumbai, Hyderabad and New Delhi in February for a series of book readings of her memoir, The New York Times best-selling “Love, Loss, and What We Ate,” and for the launch of her latest book, “The Encyclopedia of Spices & Herbs.”
Excerpts from an interview.
Please tell us about your latest book, “The Encyclopedia of Spices & Herbs.”
My new book is a compendium of every dried spice and fresh herb you could possibly think of. I’ve always wanted a book like this—a real user-friendly reference guide for spices and herbs—but couldn’t find one that encompassed all of the information I was looking for. I have “[The New] Food Lover’s Companion” and the “Cambridge World History of Food,” which are great, but not quite what I wanted. So, I decided to write my own encyclopedia. It includes much more detailed information like the history, biology and medicinal uses, as well as suggested food pairings, for each spice or herb.
How different was the process of writing your memoir, “Love, Loss, and What We Ate”?
They were very different! In a lot of ways, the encyclopedia was a much easier endeavor. The information is more scholarly; it was a much easier project to navigate. The memoir contains very personal information about my life, and actually took me nearly five years to write.
What influence did your time in India have on your writing?
I think my time in India has affected much of my writing. It has shaped much of my world view.
For the memoir, I wrote a great deal about the feeling of straddling two worlds—my home in India and my home in America. I think, for a lot of people who have emigrated to someplace new, you have sort of a hard time figuring out where exactly you fit in, never quite wholly belonging to one place or the other.
And, India certainly affected my writing of the spice encyclopedia, as so many of the spices used around the world originated in my ancestral state of Kerala.
How are the stories of your family and food intertwined in your life?
I think some of my most significant memories are all tied to food in some way or another. My curious palette led me to climb the shelves of my grandmother’s kitchen as a child, reaching out for the spicy pickles she’d keep in glass jars. My diabetic grandfather used to send me out for ice cream cups for the two of us to share when everyone else in the house was taking their afternoon naps. After my divorce, my mother sent me a box of kumquats from her garden in California. I used them to create a chutney that lifted my spirits when nothing else could. When my lover was dying, I made him a comforting applesauce. Every Tuesday, my daughter and I look forward to taco night. Food and family are very much intertwined in my life.
When and how did you become interested in the culinary world?
I’ve always been interested in food. Whenever I traveled the world on various jobs, in my down time, I would go explore the markets and call my aunts and grandmother asking for advice on how to use funky pieces of produce. I’ve always been the kind of person who starts planning my dinner as I’m finishing up the last few bites of lunch. At the end of my life, I don’t want to have any regrets thinking, “I could have eaten that!”
What role do you think food plays in strengthening people-to-people connections between countries?
Food is sort of a universal language understood by all people—we all have to eat! Sharing a meal is a way for us to better understand where we come from and what is important to us.
You experiment a lot with international cuisine; which is your favorite one?
I love Middle Eastern cuisine! I love using spices like sumac or za’atar in my own cooking. It’s a great way to add more flavor to a dish, without adding extra calories.
What are some of the challenges you faced as a female food expert and celebrity of Indian origin in the United States?
I think women in food, especially those of us on TV, are held to a much different standard than our male counterparts. We have to be glamorous and slender, in addition to being knowledgeable about the subject matter.
Whenever I get interviewed on red carpets, the questions I get asked compared to what my male colleagues get asked are so completely different. No one ever asks Tom Colicchio, for example, how he maintains his figure.
Being Indian, I didn’t have too many professional role models to look up to who’d navigated this territory before. So, in a lot of ways, I had to figure it out for myself.
How was the experience of hosting Bravo’s Emmy award-winning show “Top Chef”?
I’m so proud of our show. The people at home don’t get to see all of the hard work that goes on behind the scenes, but we have such a tremendous group of talented people that make the show the success it is. From the lighting guys, to the sound technicians, to the camera operators and culinary producer, everyone works so incredibly hard to make it all possible. Because we’ve been on the air for over 10 years, we’re like a very tight-knit family. No other show produces the level of talent we do and, I think, that’s why we remain the gold standard for food competition shows.
What role did your immigrant experience play in shaping the person you are today?
It played a huge part. I think, it gave me a very international perspective of the world. I also think when you spend your life feeling like an outsider or minority, it can often make you more nimble in adapting to various situations or types of people. We all have our own set of beliefs and prejudices, of course, but straddling two cultures gives you two different points of view for which you can call on at any given time. It’s two different touchstones with which I’m able to form an opinion.
You have been a strong advocate for women’s rights; and are the co-founder of the Endometriosis Foundation of America; and an ambassador for Keep a Child Alive. What role does your philanthropic work play in your life?
Despite having access to health care and insurance, it took until I was 36 to diagnose my endometriosis. Getting my period took me out of commission for about a week each month, and I’ve estimated that I missed out on about 25 percent of my life because of it. I co-founded our organization because I didn’t want another woman to go through what I went through. Through our ENPOWR [Endometriosis Nation Promoting Outreach and Wide Recognition] program, we’ve gone into schools and educated over 16,000 students about endometriosis and its symptoms. We’ve got a long way to go, but knowing what to look for is a huge step in the right direction.
No matter the cause, we have to fight for the issues that matter to us. My work through Keep a Child Alive over the last decade has made me realize how many blessings I’ve had in my life. And it reminds me how important it is to keep my daughter grounded, and to make sure she grows up to be an empathic adult.
Other than being a mother, my philanthropic work has proved to be the most gratifying.
Any message you would like to give to our readers?
I’m so honored to have partnered with U.S. Embassy India for a cultural exchange program. It’s wonderful to do my part to improve Indian and American relations, especially at this time. It’s something I’ve been doing all my life privately, and it’s great to have had open discussions about it in a public forum. I’m glad to have met people at the various consulates around India. Thank you so much for this opportunity!