How Padma Lakshmi Became Food TV's Goddess

IN EVERY SINGLE COOKING VIDEO on her Instagram feed, Padma Lakshmi wickedly finds a way to add butter to the dish. (Everything’s better with more butter!) But she sensibly hates the trend of butter boards. If that’s not enough to already fall head over heels in love with her: She waxes eloquent on her love for the spiciest chilies. She sings praises of tamarind’s tangy tease. And demonstrates a saint’s restraint around sweets and desserts. All of this doesn’t surprise at all because, true to her name, she is a many-petalled, many-layered, lotus flower. (Or would she prefer onion? I wonder.) With both, the metaphor still holds. Peeling back each surface only reveals more substance to her. 

She speaks with precision, marking out her studied stance on the complex, contested ideas of racism in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. She calls out male writers for being both awesome and assholes. She can explain with great detail colonialism’s hand in the racial biases of our education systems. She cringes on hearing the title of her first book: Easy Exotic — A Model’s Low-Fat Recipes from Around the World. She wouldn’t use the word “exotic” any longer because she’s “evolving”. She’s written an honours thesis on the “Golden Age of Spanish Theatre in the 12th Century”. And she knows the reasons for the pauses in a Pinter play. Even this seems like merely scratching at the first layer. 

Over a career spanning more than three decades in food, Padma Lakshmi has been on a mission to expand her viewers and readers’ ideas of food and the cultures that inform it. She isn’t just introducing South Indian food — the cuisine she grew up eating — to the rest of the world, she is working at building connections between diverse cuisines, allowing for them to be accessible to anyone interested in cooking or just eating. More than 20 years ago, I remember first watching Padma Lakshmi on Discovery Channel, hosting her first food show — Planet Food. In the series, she eats her way through the cities of South India, gracefully moving between tiny home kitchens and giant ones inside temples equipped to feed thousands of devotees. While the show was definitely geared towards Western audiences, she hadn’t tailored all of it for their palates or pleasures, she was also pushing them to see something new. Of course, the flavoursome yet familiar biryani is featured but she also goes the extra mile to showcase street food and breakfast items. I still remember the feelings of warmth and pride on seeing her walking the streets of Bangalore in this series. 

OVER THE YEARS, tracing the trajectories of her television shows from season to season, and the teaching videos on her Instagram Reels, it is obvious that things have changed from those early days. She is in the driver’s seat now. Her interests are guiding the conversations she wants to make around food. Her wealth of knowledge doesn’t have to be pared down to cater to any single market, instead her audience has grown into an international one. She isn’t pandering to anyone in Middle America; in fact, even with her latest television offering — Hulu’s Taste the Nation — she seems to be taking on the very idea of ‘American food’. Her signature intelligence, wit and openness to learn from global food cultures is trained onto the immigrant communities in America. In doing so, she seems to strengthen her on-going thesis: that food breaks and makes myths about ourselves. 

But rest assured, she won’t ever stop evangelising about the ingredients, techniques and dishes from the Indian Subcontinent — especially the South. (Thank the stars above!) And thankfully, she isn’t entirely delusional in her fervour either. She famously agrees with all of us trying to photograph our plate of comfort food for Instagram likes: home-cooked Indian food doesn’t photograph well. You know what? We’ll just have to make peace with it. She has! Even on the rare occasion she isn’t trying to slip in a South Indian ingredient into her recipes, she represents superbly when on the judges’ panel on Top Chef. She reminds the contenders that she can handle the heat. 

Padma Lakshmi is our Beyonce. Instead of the hot sauce in her bag, she’s got a Ziplock bag of fresh green chilies. Thus, Padma Lakshmi continues to allow us to feel seen in the world. She also reminds us that being Indian can mean rootedness but also an interest, intrigue and involvement with the rest of the world. The Sparknotes version: Padma Lakshmi is just so cool ya.