I once had a dream about Padma Lakshmi, the host of Bravo’s award winning show Top Chef. Well if I’m being honest… it was more of a nightmare! I dreamed I was a contestant on Top Chef and she delivered her famous line to me: “Paul, pack your knives and go.” I woke up with a terrible fright!
So when I recently met Padma for a little lunch date, that terrible nightmare was in the back of my head. Thankfully, after a few seconds being around her, I was so relieved to find that she is one of the sweetest and loveliest people I’ve ever met! Padma is so warm, charming, and very very smart. She has written cookbooks and a wonderful memoir, has a rice line (very tasty), and is a mother to boot!
Why is food important to you?
When I look back on my life, I can tell you what I wore and what I ate on almost any given day. Food has been an integral part of my emotional life. I’m not sure if it’s because of my sensitive palate or that food often triggers memories for me and takes me back to different moments in my life. It’s also been something that’s given me great comfort throughout the years. In my memoir I talk about a moment when I was recovering from my divorce and made this beautiful kumquat chutney, and it gave me the emotional boost I needed to get up off the floor and live my life again. Food can be nutritious both for the body and the soul.
My grandmother was and still is my big food inspiration. Who is yours?
My grandmother is my biggest food inspiration as well, she along with my mother and aunts, have passed down their generations of knowledge to me. In Indian households, the kitchen is a matriarchal society, which I think is the case for many cultures. The kitchen was the place to be, it was where all the gossip was exchanged and where big things happened. So when I was younger I loved to be in the kitchen, climbing the shelves, running under my mother’s sari. As you got older, you were given bigger tasks. Even at this age, my grandmother and aunts still correct me when I’m cooking in their kitchen back in India. They were essential in forming my palate and even when I was writing my spice book, I would call them to fact check notes about certain spices.
What’s your fondest childhood food memory?
I have so many fond memories around food—most of my memories in general are about food! But I remember whenever I went to Delhi to visit my Uncle Ravi, he used to take me out for chaat (Indian street food) near India Gate, which looks like the Arc de Triomphe, or Washington Square Park here in NYC. Anyway, my uncle knew how much I loved this type of snack food and often we would stop by on our way from the airport. After spending a whole day traveling and a total of 22 hours of flying time, you would think I’d want to go home to shower, get some sleep, and then venture out to fulfill my mental laundry list of foods to conquer from back home, but sleep could always wait, my stomach couldn’t!
What do you always have in your pantry?
I always have coconut milk, Maggi hot and sweet sauce, creamy peanut butter, preserved lemons, sambar powder, and sumac, as well as several kinds of chili powders, such as Aleppo and Urfa chili, and Cayenne. I also always have fresh curry leaves and kaffir lime leaves from my dad’s garden, and tons fresh bell peppers in the crisper.
This is a really hard one! In my memoir I speak about kichidi, a rice and lentil porridge that is a type of Indian comfort food, but I really also love a good In-N-Out burger, and tacos are pretty awesome too, as well as fish curry and extremely thin crust pizza and chocolate cake without frosting, and my own homemade grilled cheese with chilies and I kind of can’t resist tapioca pudding…and then there is of course breakfast in general…. Shall I keep going??
If you want to start cooking Indian food, what’s an easy dish to start with?
I think start with a rice dish. It’s easy to make an elegant pilaf with a handful of spices. Just a few seeds and twigs can impart such aroma and flavor into a simple pot of rice. Add a touch of butter and a few thin crescents of fried onion into it and it’s hard to go wrong. You could also try yogurt rice, which is the same as above but instead of onions use a ton of plain salted yogurt. Mustard seeds, curry leaves, and a couple of dried red chilies fried in oil is all you need to add to the yogurt rice. If you want to just buy one spice that can do it all or a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to Indian flavors, buy some Garam masala. That’s an all-purpose Indian spice blend that works with meat as well as lentils and veggies. You can do a stir-fried curry of vegetables with Garam masala, salt, and just oil or butter. The same will work for shrimp or a fillet of fish with lemon and cilantro dashed on at the end.
Or dress salted, boiled lentils left with their cooking water with some chopped onions, tomatoes, and bell peppers fried in oil and Garam masala and throw that in at the end and stir for a nice stew. The South Indian version of Garam masala is sambar powder and you can do all of the above with this blend and it will be great! Add ginger to any of the above as well as a touch of coconut milk and you’ll be amazed at how many dishes you can create.
Any dirty food secrets? (Mine is Taco Bell!)
I love fried chicken, especially the crunch of the skin. I also love Taco Bell myself, as well as an occasional Sausage McMuffin from McDonald’s.
Tell me about your new book?
My new book is entitled The Encyclopedia of Spices & Herbs. It’s an A to Z compendium of every dried spice, fresh herb, salt, pepper, and blend you can think of. When I was traveling around the world during my days a model, I would go to spice markets, grab as much as I could carry, and then go home and experiment. I would call my relatives in India for the spices I was unfamiliar with. Since then I have always wanted a reference guide with everything you could want to know about a spice, from suggested uses to its biology. I’ve never come across this type of reference book before, so I decided to partner with Kalustyan’s to write one.
What’s the one thing we don’t know about Padma?
I was planning to be a psychologist.