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Padma Lakshmi is no stranger to travel. From a young age, she jet-setted across the globe as a model and has since filmed in exotic destinations for shows like Top Chef. But her latest business venture kept her a bit closer to home.
Taste the Nation with Padma Lakshmi is set to air June 18 on Hulu. It features the culinary entrepreneur journeying across America to learn about the diverse food culture of several immigrant groups. She heads to the border to learn about Mexican food and heritage, South Carolina, to understand the Gullah Geechee people, and even a Native American reservation to eat indigenous food.
Here, the TV personality opens up about her experiences filming and the one food item that made her cringe.
What attracted you to be part of the show?
"I'm an immigrant, and I started working with the ACLU as an artist's ambassador on immigrant issues. This is my rebuttal to a lot of the negativity that's coming out of Washington about immigrants and all the fear-mongering. I personally think that immigration is one of our strongest qualities in this country. I think it's a big reason why our economy is so strong and our pop culture is so interesting. At first, this was supposed to be a cookbook, but I was always going to develop a show on immigration. Then my producing partner and I decided to combine the two projects. It's been a couple of years in development from start to finish, and it's very gratifying to go from just a concept or idea in your head to a full series."
What was the most surprising thing you learned during filming?
"I grew up with sugar cane in South India at my grandmother's house, but I've never chopped it down myself. When I did it in the Hawaiian episode, I was out there for no more than 20 or 30 minutes, and I was exhausted. I had hundreds of tiny cuts on my forearms because of all the fibers that you don't really see with the naked eye. And I was surprised that anybody could do that backbreaking work for 10 hours a day in the hot sun."
What was the most surprising food?
"I was surprised at how delicious pack rat was. I don't know what I expected because I don't have much experience eating rodents. I'm not going to lie. I was pretty squeamish about it the whole week leading up to that day. But, I have to be gracious and a good sport. If I want other people to learn about these cultures, I have to experience them fully and firsthand. But I was really pleasantly surprised. It tastes like chicken thighs."
Will you be working it into your home cooking rotation?
"I wouldn't even know where to get it, and my reflexes aren't that great. So it's not like I'm going to go foraging for it myself. But that was another thing I had never done. I'd never foraged for food. I mean, I had forged for truffles once, but that's it."
You've traveled all over the world for work and pleasure. But what was so special about traveling through the U.S.?
"Because of my work first as a model, and then for food, I have been really lucky to be able to see some of the outer parts of our world. And there are so many places that I went to that I would have never gotten a chance to experience. With this show, I've never been on a native American reservation. I've never been to Milwaukee. I've never been to Oktoberfest or made beer. I never knew that there was this huge population of Peruvians in Patterson, New Jersey."
What was your favorite spot?
"I think San Francisco. I have been to San Francisco before, but I never had time to explore Chinatown. But I've had amazing dim sum. So, it was nice to have a tour of Chinatown and meet the owner of my favorite dim sum restaurant in the whole country, Yank Sing. For me, places are really about the people."
And how do you feel about the show coming out during such a poignant moment in this nation?
"Obviously, I could have never predicted the climate in which the show would be released. I hope that it gives comfort to people. I hope that it opens their mind and gives them food for thought. I'm very proud of the Gullah Geechee episode. I hope that it allowed people to travel vicariously through the show since they haven't been able to for months on end and still perhaps won't for very long, even if we do open up."