Padma Lakshmi poses a difficult question to her daughter, Krishna, in the third episode of her new Hulu docu-series, Taste the Nation: “Do you prefer American pancakes to dosas?” Dosa being the paper-thin, crispy-edged, savory South Indian crepes made of ground lentils and rice flour that she grew up eating three of in one sitting, and American pancakes being the fluffy stacks topped with butter and syrup. After some deliberation, Krishna replies, “I like pancakes … but I think I prefer dosas to waffles.”
Lakshmi has dealt with the duality of her food identities as an Indian-American person since she moved to the States when she was four years old. The pitting of dosas—which are her most nostalgic, homey comfort food—against the diner staple isn’t something she does often. Instead, she makes room for both in her Sunday brunches at home with her daughter, and applies that mindset to the rest of her life too. She doesn’t have to choose to be Indian or American on any given day.
In Lakshmi’s new show, she explores immigrant food and what “American” food really means. At first, she was hesitant to put the spotlight on herself, instead wanting to highlight and support the chefs and cooks across the country as a “tour guide for communities that don’t often get mainstream coverage,” she explains over a Zoom call. But ultimately, with the encouragement of her executive producer, Sarina Roma—one talented member of the show’s mostly women-of-color crew—she was able to show off Jackson Heights, Queens (the neighborhood she grew up in) and its complex and expansive offerings of Indian cuisine.
Another episode of Taste the Nation explores San Francisco’s Chinatown and the origins of the Chinese-American dish, chop suey. (Half-Chinese comedian, Ali Wong, is her tour guide in the episode, and has no earthly idea what it is.) Lakshmi likens chicken tikka masala as the chop suey of Indian cooking—a dish that is well-known to Americans and acts as a generalization of all Indian food just being “gravy with mystery meat floating in it.” While, in fact, there is so much more to regional Indian cuisine that has “not really been tapped in the United States, according to me.”
Why? Lakshmi explains: “The reason that people have a lot of misconceptions about Indian food is because India is such a vast country, not just geographically, but also culturally. You have to picture it almost like Europe under one federal government. You can travel by car for an hour and [even within that short distance] people will be speaking a whole other language. They’re wearing different clothes, they’re eating different foods, they’re maybe praying to a different god, and yet they’re all Indian.”
The goal of the show is to showcase many different sides of cuisines and cultures that are overlooked. “We’re eating [immigrants’] foods, but we’re not that often letting them speak for themselves or showing us what’s behind the food, what’s their culture, and where it comes from.” And that’s what Lakshmi is here to do, to showcase to everything from Thai food (that isn’t just pad Thai) to burritos at the Mexican border to an in-depth look at Gullah Geechee cuisine in the South.
Of all the dishes Lakshmi explores throughout the series, dosa hits the closest to home, because it’s one of her earliest food memories. At two years old, she sat and watched her grandmother grind rice for the batter in the reservoir of a huge, flat, two-foot-wide stone. Recalling the tedious process, Lakshmi demonstrates with movements of her hands how the fermented rice and lentils are carefully combined into a paste and thinned with water for fresh dosa batter. Her grandmother did that every day for 10 people when Lakshmi was a child; when she grew old enough to use the stovetop, at age 12, her grandmother eventually taught her the technique for the perfect dosa.
Her Aunt Bhanu—whose recipe she shared with us for masala dosas and coconut chutney, all coordinated via a long WhatsApp chain—continued that tradition whenever Lakshmi visited her in India. Even after partying until 4 a.m., if a group of them came back to the house, Bhanu would ask if they wanted some fresh dosas. It became a love language that Lakshmi has passed down to her daughter, too—even if Krishna sometimes prefers pancakes.
Masala Dosa With Coconut Chutney From Padma Lakshmi
• Homemade Dosa Batter (Note: You can also buy prepared batter from your local Indian store):
• 3 cups white long grain rice
• 1 1/4 cups urad dal (white gram lentils)
• 1 tablespoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
• 1/4 cup canola or untoasted sesame oil
• Aloo Masala:
• 4 Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes (about 4 cups)
• 2 tablespoons canola or untoasted sesame oil
• 1/2 teaspoon brown or black mustard seeds
• 1 teaspoon urad dal (white gram lentils)
• 2 yellow onions, cut into thin crescents
• 1 to 2 green chilies, such as serranos, sliced into thin strips lengthwise
• 1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
• 1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
• 1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice (from 1/2 lemon)
• 1/3 cup fresh cilantro (leaves and stems), chopped
• Coconut Chutney:
• 1 splash canola or untoasted sesame oil
• 1/2 teaspoon chana dal (split yellow gram lentils)
• 1 fresh coconut, drained and peeled, cut into small chunks (or 10 ounces frozen and grated coconut)
• 2 to 3 fresh green chilies, such as serrano
• 1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
• Tadka (Tempered Spices) for Coconut Chutney
• 1 1/2 tablespoons canola oil
• 1/2 teaspoon black or brown mustard seeds
• 1 tablespoon urad dal (white gram lentils)
• 1 dried red chile
• 1/4 teaspoon asafetida
• 12 to 15 fresh curry leaves
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