Sure, it’s fun to watch Padma Lakshmi travel across the country and sample various delicacies in Hulu’s award-winning docuseries “Taste the Nation.” But the Emmy-nominated host, model, activist and executive producer wants viewers to come away with something a little …meatier.
“I’m a firm believer that everyone has an interesting story to tell, if you just take the time to listen,” she says. “And when you do, you will see that while we may all have different backgrounds, there is more that unites us than divides us.”
Through the ten episodes of season two (now streaming), Lakshmi — who’s also hosted the competition series “Top Chef” on Bravo since 2006 — continues her journey by focusing on a different city and its cuisine. For starters, she dined on Greek food in Tarpon Springs, Florida, and Nigerian meals in Houston, Texas. Plus, “I learned how to butcher a pig’s head for Filipino sisig in San Francisco and observed Ramadan and broke fast in Dearborn, Michigan.”
Back at home, Lakshmi’s kitchen routine is only slightly more grounded. “I’m not currently filming so I’ve actually been testing recipes that I learned and adapted on the road for the ‘Taste the Nation’ cookbook,” she says. Still, she urges chefs of all levels to not be intimidated by cooking at home. “I think one of the things that turns people off is just the prep work,” she says. “What I try to do is prep what I need a week in advance. You can even do it while watching your favorite TV show on a Sunday afternoon!”
For more insider tips and recommendations, Laskshmi shared her list of kitchen musts with CNN Underscored.
Lakshmi proudly notes that her 2007 cookbook, recently reissued in paperback, “was ahead of its time.” With a focus on international cuisine and exotic flavors and spices, it features recipes for dishes such as Keralan crab cakes, BBQ Korean short ribs, fresh green beans with lentils and coconuts and chocolate amaretto ice cream.
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Lakshmi loves spices and herbs so much that she literally wrote the book on it. “It’s hard for me to name just one favorite, but I love using za’atar, sumac, Urfa chili and black cardamom in my cooking,” she says. She sources many of these flavors from Diaspora Co., which offers a custom build-your-own-spice box for spice newbies and experts.
Lakshmi says she “adores” her ice cream maker, which can concoct frozen treats — think frozen yogurt, sorbet and sherbet too! — in just 20 minutes. “My daughter and I love coming up with fun flavor combinations in the summer,” she says. “We make everything from pistachio and rose to black sesame and maple.”
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If you’ve ever watched one of Lakshmi’s Instagram videos and wondered how she perfects her tadka cooking technique (blooming whole spices in fat to extract aromas, spices and flavors) while prepping Indian food, here’s her secret ingredient: a carbon-steel Kadai wok, available in seven sizes. She adds, “You can also use an idukki to clamp on the side of the wok and transfer [the spices] to whatever dish you’re cooking.”
Lakshmi recommends a few essential blades. The Five Two knives feature sharp Japanese steel with a soft-touch handle and comfortable grip. “These knives are classically designed and a real work horse in my kitchen,” she says. She also raves about her custom-made Craftstone Knife. “I got to design it all, from the handle to my name engraved on the blade. I really love it!”
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She has a yellow one. “It’s great for preparing large batches of soups and stews or anything that requires a long cooking time,” Lakshmi says. “And the Le Creuset products all have even heat distribution, which is important so nothing sticks or burns.” The enameled cast-iron pot also includes a tight-fitting lid designed to circulate steam and return moisture back to the food.
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When using a board to chop vegetables, Lakshmi abides by two rules: Nothing plastic (“They stain easily or you risk it chipping off”) and nothing flimsy (“I want something sturdy that won’t slip"). That’s why she says the Boos board — which includes finger grips and a juice groove — is, well, a cut above. As a bonus, “it’s extremely durable and lasts a long time.”
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