Padma Lakshmi Plays 'Top' Radio Chef The culinary artist who rescued TV's hit reality show Top Chef breaks out delights from her new book, Tangy Tart Hot and Sweet: A World of Recipes for Every Day.
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Padma Lakshmi Plays 'Top' Radio Chef

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Padma Lakshmi Plays 'Top' Radio Chef

Padma Lakshmi Plays 'Top' Radio Chef

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There is a big tussle going on at the NPR office as in THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT. Everybody wants the copy of Padma Lakshmi's new book, "Tangy Tart Hot and Sweet."


We get a lot…

STEWART: I've already written my name in mine.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PADMA LAKSHMI (Culinary Artist; Host, "Top Chef;" Author, "Tangy Tart Hot and Sweet: A World of Recipes for Every Day"): Oh.

BURBANK: We have a lot of books that get mailed to us, but most of them go on this free pile, but this is one that everybody's so interested in because it's sort of - its amazing photographs, its amazing recipes, people of course probably know Padma. Maybe now, mostly from this show, "Top Chef," which I don't want to make your head swell too much, but feel like she went to a whole other level when you started hosting it. I'm such a fan.

Ms. LAKSHMI: Oh thank you. Thank you very much. It's a really great show to be a part of. I was such a, you know, naysayer and very cynical about reality shows. But I have to say, this show is, I think, popular with everyone because it's about something. It's always compelling to see someone be really good at what they do and strive to be the best in what they do in whatever that is. Whether it's cooking or sewing or sports, I think, you know, it's very compelling. And food unifies us all, and so we all have very strict opinions about that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LAKSHMI: So, something for everyone.

STEWART: One of the things I really like in your book is it is useful as a cookbook, but it would also make a very lovely coffee table book because there's beautiful pictures and essays in the book. And in the introduction to it, you write about how your life experience - all the people who came in and out of your life and all their various ethnicities really helps you believe that the next wave of food culture is global.

Ms. LAKSHMI: Oh most definitely. I think that, you know, the world has become a much bigger place and a much smaller place with the Internet, and with, you know. Also, our generation of eaters really is much more aware or are, you know, are much more well-traveled with our forks. You know, we don't have to travel the globe. The whole, you know, world comes to us on every food court.

And if you think about what you guys ate in the last 10 days, you probably had some Mexican food.


Ms. LAKSHMI: Some pasta or pizza.


Ms. LAKSHMI: Some sushi, maybe some Arabic food, you know, maybe some Thai, maybe some Moroccan. And I think this is how we all eat - not only in America, but around the world in most urban cities. And I think it's very exciting.

BURBANK: Can I just ask? What kind of food did you grow up eating? What is your background actually? Like when you put a Google search for Padma Lakshmi, it is like - it is long because people are so fascinated with you as a person out side of the show, outside of cooking. What's your story?

Ms. LAKSHMI: Well, it's - I'm trying to give you the cliff noted version. I was born in India and I came to America when I was about four, but I kept getting shuttled back to India. Like the week after school was done in June and I was on the plane. And so, you know, I was always going back and forth. I came here to New York. So I always say that my childhood was split up between Manhattan and Madras, which is my south Indian town now called Chennai.

And then, you know, after college, I traveled and I lived in Spain and I lived in Italy for six years and in France. And so, you know, that has really shaped me. That's why I learned classic European cooking technique and I sort of melded that with my own Asian background. But as an immigrant in the city, my mother took me to Spanish Harlem for sugar cane, down to Chinatown for some, you know, Asian vegetables that we use in our cooking. And so I was really, you know, touched by all these different flavors and ethnicities. And I think we've all got that. You know, you may not be Indian and you may not have lived with a boyfriend in Italy, and, you know.

BURBANK: There's a lot that you don't know about, Padma.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LAKSHMI: Probably. But, you know, I think, we all have those stories. We all have a Korean college roommate, we all have a Peruvian babysitter…

STEWART: You're right.

Ms. LAKSHMI: …you know, who's affected our identity, you know, at least culinary speaking, but much more than that.

STEWART: Also I think it's interesting that in one part of your book with the last chapter is devoted specifically to mangoes and chutneys. And you have all kinds of interesting ingredients. You brought some of them here today. But I want to ask, for some of you those reading this book and is in a really rural area, and really wants to find cartemum pods.

Ms. LAKSHMI: Well, carte…

STEWART: Do you have any suggestions about some of the more exotic spices and where to go?

Ms. LAKSHMI: Sure. I do. And you know, we ran out of space in this book and we're already reprinting, which is great. But in the future edition, we are going to put a page of sources. But honestly, you can get anything you need from my book by going to any good Whole Foods or Traitor Joe's or, you know, an Indian grocery store.

There is a place called Colusthians(ph) here in New York City and they have a Web site and they will mail you anything by mail order - anywhere you want. In fact, when I was traveling in Europe, and I couldn't get things like fresh curry leaves, they would send them to me.

STEWART: It's kind of interesting also because it also might get people to investigate different neighborhoods they've always heard about in their city.

Ms. LAKSHMI: Sure.

STEWART: Like, I've never been to Korea Town.

Ms. LAKSHMI: Yeah.

STEWART: I've never been to Little India, maybe I should go and check out and buy some ingredients.

Ms. LAKSHMI: Yeah, and also, a lot of these recipes, you know, some of them are elaborate ones like a Moroccan Curry Bisteeya pie, traditionally, that's made with pigeon, but I make it with ground chicken. But chicken make of a ground turkey or ground lamb or anything. That's probably the most, you know, most foreign, total start to finish fiddly dish.

But there are a lot of easy things to make that are really just classic American recipes that we're all familiar with like chicken soup, macaroni and cheese or let's say even crab cakes, which are, for instance, in the back cover and I just take the - those types of dishes and I add two or three eclectic ingredients to them to give them a whole new personality.

So for instance, the crab cakes are called Keralan crab cakes. Kerala is in south India and I just used, you know, grated coconut. You can use dried, unsweetened coconut. It doesn't have to be fresh. And a little bit of green mango powder and some Serrano chilis and corianders. So it gives you this new kind of very sophisticated dish, but with little change to your normal repertoire. Because I've realized that, you know, a lot of us who cook, especially on week nights, we have an audience of three or four family members at the dinner table. And it's hard to say, ok guys, I'm making this thing that you've never heard of.


(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LAKSHMI: But you can expand your family's culinary horizons just by adding these two or three ingredients. Now before - like in front of you.

STEWART: Yeah you brought a…

BURBANK: Yeah it's like a science project.

Ms. LAKSHMI: You have kaffir lime leaves. I just want you guys to break the leaf and just have a sniff.


(Soundbite of leaf breaking)

Ms. LAKSHMI: You will…

STEWART: Oh my gosh.

BURBANK: Oh yeah.

Ms. LAKSHMI: It smells like the ocean and lime trees, you know. And it's just beautiful. And you can add that to soups, you can add it to curries.

STEWART: It is embarrassing. I'm going to get my desk all these sniffing oils.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LAKSHMI: Yeah, it smells so good, you know?

STEWART: It's amazing.

Ms. LAKSHMI: And you guys…

BURBANK: This smells a lot better than the office.

Ms. LAKSHMI: Yeah, and you guys will recognize that fragrance from a lot of Thai dishes.

STEWART: Oh, soup. I'm already…

Ms. LAKSHMI: Yeah.


STEWART: Like lemongrass soup with the hot shrimp.

Ms. LAKSHMI: Exactly.


STEWART: I'm smelling it already. So what are the - what's in the cups?

Ms. LAKSHMI: Okay, so you have a red, kind of vermilion powder there. That is sumac. Sumac is a powder that adds tartness to any dish. And I wish you guys could see it because it adds this beautiful vermilion color. You can sprinkle it in on dips, use it in roasts…

STEWART: You see that Bronzy-deep red combination. It's…

Ms. LAKSHMI: Yeah, sprinkle it on pilafs, anything.

STEWART: I just love it.

Ms. LAKSHMI: I mean, this is a beautiful garnish, but it also adds tartness when you don't want moisture into a dish, like from lemon juice and stuff. And that is used in Middle Eastern cooking, but actually sumac is indigenous to North America. You know, they used to use it in cough syrups.

STEWART: But that is - as in a tree?

Ms. LAKSHMI: Yeah. It's a bush.

(Soundbite of laughter)


Ms. LAKSHMI: Bush. It's a sumac bush and it's berries that they've dried and powdered.

BURBANK: It sounds like what you're saying with this book is there's a whole spectrum. There's stuff that's really different tasting than what may be, let's say, a lot of sort of Americans have grown up eating. But even things like crab cakes that are classic, you throw a little bit of flavor…

Ms. LAKSHMI: Yeah.

BURBANK: …and then you sort of start it on the road towards someday maybe being top chef.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BURBANK: So I brought it all back around.

STEWART: Very nice. That's a nice way to wrap. There you go.

Ms. LAKSHMI: Yeah. I mean, you can, you know, you can use these ingredients in anything.

BURBANK: Yeah. Padma Lakshmi, author of "Tangy Tart Hot and Sweet." You want to get this book. It's just great all the way around.

STEWART: There's beautiful photos in it too.

BURBANK: I don't even buy cookbooks and I'm going to steal this from Ilya.

Ms. LAKSHMI: Thank you.

BURBANK: Plus, Ilya swore on the air. He doesn't get to have this cookbook.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BURBANK: So thank you.

STEWART: You're a trooper right?

BURBANK: Yeah, you got the Trooper of the Year.

Ms. LAKSHMI: Thank you.

(Soundbite of clapping)

STEWART: Lots of book readings and stuff. So we appreciate it.

Ms. LAKSHMI: I love NPR. I support NPR. I hope you guys are on the air forever.

STEWART: Well, please come back another day. We'll have you back another time?

Ms. LAKSHMI: I would love to.

STEWART: Excellent.

BURBANK: All right, thanks, Padma.

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