SAM SANDERS, HOST:
Hey, y'all. You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Sam Sanders. And this episode, we are giving you a very special bonus. Today, we're going to turn our feed over to our friends over at "Asian Enough." "Asian Enough" is an LA Times podcast all about being Asian American. Jen Yamato and Frank Shyong are the hosts. And every episode they invite celebrity guests to share their personal stories and unpack their identities on their own terms.
Guests also share what the show calls bad Asian confessions. And those are quite fun. So this show, "Asian Enough," it is all about exploring this vast diaspora that's spread across many cultures and backgrounds and generations and, ultimately, trying to expand the ways in which being Asian American is defined. So with that, here is a very special episode of "Asian Enough" in the IT'S BEEN A MINUTE podcast feed. Enjoy.
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JEN YAMATO: From the LA Times studios, this is "Asian Enough." Each week on this podcast, we talk to one Asian American celebrity about the joys, the complications and everything else that comes along with being Asian American. I am Jen Yamato.
FRANK SHYONG: And I'm Frank Shyong. This week, it's Episode 14 of our podcast. And we're joined by the TV host, model and writer Padma Lakshmi. We'll talk about why she thinks Indian cuisine hasn't quite had its moment yet.
PADMA LAKSHMI: People - because of sanitary issues, because of religious issues, a lot of Indians are wary of going out to eat.
YAMATO: We will also talk about Padma's new Hulu show, which is a fantastic dive into different cultures and cuisines across America, hosted and executive produced by Padma, called "Taste The Nation." And, really, we'll talk about a bit of everything.
SHYONG: Let's get started.
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SHYONG: Padma, thank you so much for joining us.
LAKSHMI: Thank you.
LAKSHMI: I think it's really cool what you're doing because I would've loved something like this. When I was an Asian American teenager, it just didn't exist. So I'm pleased that, you know, this generation of young Asian Americans will have that.
SHYONG: Maybe they can grow up without some of the baggage that we have (laughter).
LAKSHMI: They'll have their own baggage, I'm sure. But, yes.
SHYONG: That's why I wanted to talk a little bit about, you know, your upbringing. In your memoir, which is called "Love, Loss, And What We Ate," you talked about growing up in New York and LA. And I had no idea you grew up in Los Angeles. Where did you grow up in LA? And what were your experiences like?
LAKSHMI: I grew up in La Puente, which is in the San Gabriel Valley.
SHYONG: Oh, OK.
LAKSHMI: Went to Workman High School - my mother got transferred from Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York to City of Hope Hospital in Duarte - or Arcadia, I guess. And so that's why we moved. And I went to high school in San Gabriel Valley. So yeah, I mean, you know, I consider myself such a New Yorker because I've lived in New York so long. It was my first point of entry into the United States when I immigrated here when I was 4. And so you know, that's what winds up getting a lot of play in my personal history. But I have very fully formed, deep memories of my years in La Puente. And, you know, my mother still lives in the house I grew up in. So whenever I come to LA, I always wind up going there, of course.
SHYONG: Did you like growing up in LA? Did you like growing up in La Puente? Was it a cool place to grow up?
LAKSHMI: I did not.
LAKSHMI: I was mad at my mother for moving to Los Angeles for years. I really, you know, held it against her. My poor mom. She was a single mom. And, you know, she's from South India. And so she couldn't take the cold. And, you know, it was expensive to live in Manhattan. And so I understand as an adult and as a parent all the reasons that she, of course, you know, moved us across the country. But as a child, it just seemed hugely inconvenient and dumb because in New York, I was much more independent because everybody walks. And you're in a very densely populated metropolitan area.
In Los Angeles, as you guys know, like, there's no center. There's no downtown. And especially in La Puente, I was in a suburb. And you needed a car to get anywhere. And so I felt like my independence was stifled drastically just moving cities. And then I was also - you know, I was in La Puente. I wasn't in, like, Sherman Oaks or something. So you know, in the '80s, when I was in high school, there were a lot of gangs in La Puente. And, you know, other than South Central LA, it was a very seriously dangerous place. We had Mexican gangs. We had a lot of cholos and cholas. And some of them were my friends. But some of them also bullied me.
And so I had my little conclave of friends, who were mostly Filipino because our high school did have a lot of Mexicans, a lot of Filipinos, a lot of African Americans, probably the most Mexican and also Caucasian. But from my freshman year to my senior year, you could really see the population of this school skew much more ethnic and brown. And so I found it hard. Like, you know, because I'm Indian and my skin is brown, on face value, you could think I was Mexican maybe. But then once I opened my mouth, it was obvious. And I don't think there were enough Indians at my school for anybody to form any kind of opinion about me except that I was other, you know?
YAMATO: Actually, I'm curious. You mentioned that you were not super happy about the move to LA for a while, not happy that your mom made that move. And, of course, that's a huge move from New York. New York is a huge move from India, where much of your family is. When did you and how did you come to understand your mom's journey and your mom's reasons for moving both of you so far?
LAKSHMI: Well, I understand that those moves were born of necessity. I understood why she didn't feel totally comfortable in New York. But I'm different than my mother, you know? My mother is not as curious about being in the world and just traveling and, you know, bumping up against other people. Whereas, that's all I want to do (laughter), you know? So I knew very early on, even when I was 4, that the reason we were leaving India is because it was very taboo for my mom to be a divorcee. Divorce just didn't happen in Indian culture. And growing up and going back to India every year, I still don't know - I know one person in India who's divorced, you know?
And so I knew that we were leaving to have a better life. You know, my mother left when I was 2. And I lived with my grandparents. And I didn't see my dad. So I had no recollection of my real father. I didn't even know what his face looked like because they had ripped up all the pictures. So from 2 to 4, I didn't see either of my parents. So I literally was so excited to come to America because America, to me, meant being reunited with my mom.
YAMATO: That's obviously a story that you, I think, write about beautifully, you know, experiences that you write about beautifully and reflect upon in your memoir. So much of what you also write about is the role that food had to play in your connection with your family and even getting you through hard moments. Like, you describe a kumquat chutney in the opening of your memoir that really got you through that was a recipe from your grandmother. And I wonder how you feel that your relationships were shaped or enabled through food, and what that has meant to you along the way of your journey.
LAKSHMI: I think food was a conduit to keeping close ties with my family. You know, once I came to America and my mom and I settled here, you know, I occupied this third space that many Asian American kids do, which is, you know, I wasn't Indian enough. And I didn't adhere to Indian norms in India for children, you know? So I wasn't Indian enough there. And certainly, when I was in America, I wasn't American enough for my American peers or my teachers or whatever. And I occupied this third space that was basically made up of a little bit of this and a little bit of that from each culture.
And so food, for me, was a pure way that was also non-controversial to have a connection with my family. Like, even during this quarantine - you know, we have a family WhatsApp of all my cousins and everything. And I have been reaching out to my aunt to ask her some fact-checking questions about recipes from my childhood. You know, I really love my aunt, Bhanu. She - I didn't like her very much growing up. But she's the only reason I can balance a checkbook, you know, because she was like a second mother to me when I was sent back to India.
And she helped me, you know, tutored me, because Indian schooling is so much harder than American schooling. And there were certain years that I was sent back to study at an Indian school. And I found it incredibly difficult. And I just felt always like the class dunce in those years. I was, like, behind by, like, a grade and a half. And so you know, also Indian forms of learning are very different than American school systems' forms of learning, so - or methods, I should say.
So you know, I needed my aunt so badly. And she performed this heroic feat that I'm now in quarantine with home schooling (laughter) really appreciating. Like, on Mother's Day, I wrote her this text saying, like, you've always been like a second mom to me. And I can never repay you. So you know, but the way that we today communicate is, really, through food and the exchange of recipes and stuff like that.
SHYONG: How come you guys didn't get along growing up?
LAKSHMI: Because she made me do my homework.
SHYONG: I see.
LAKSHMI: I had a fun aunt who would always braid my hair and let me do her makeup. And then I had Bhanu, who would make sure that I had my work done. And, you know, she's the one who had to take me to school to enroll me in school. So she was the one who always got called by the principal or the teacher, you know?
SHYONG: I see. She's the bad cop.
SHYONG: What was your favorite thing to eat growing up?
LAKSHMI: Anything with tamarind. I loved sour food, like sour notes. So I don't have much of a sweet tooth. Although, I can say it's growing by the day. But, like, I love tamarind chutney. We make a soup called vatha kuzhambu, which is a south Indian soup that's tamarind-based. And every time I go back to visit my family in India, they know to make that with a particular squash stir-fried curry. And that's, like, the menu. Everyone in my family knows I love that. And we had tamarind trees at my school. And I would always bring home tamarind pods from those trees (laughter).
SHYONG: Oh, wow. The thing that you always hear about Indian food is that it tastes better at home - right? - that it's a home food, it's a hearth food. And I'm just curious, like, how do you feel about the state of Indian food in America, whether it's a successful restaurant culture for example or, you know, whether it's well-understood, whether curry dishes are understood to be curry dishes, you know? I wonder if you think much about that.
LAKSHMI: I do think about it, you know, because I get asked and also because it would be nice to be able to order Indian food that I enjoy just as much as my own cooking or my family's cooking. I don't think we're there yet. I think some young Indian chefs in this country may take issue with me saying that, but that's how I feel, and that's how - that's my interpretation of what's going on.
I don't think Indian food has had its big moment in the way that Mexican or Chinese or Thai food have. I think there are other cuisines that are the same, like Persian food for example. And that's because, you know, there just aren't the numbers of Indian people that there are of Chinese or Mexicans, say. I also think, you know, Indian food is very spicy. It's not a particularly attractive cuisine, you know?
LAKSHMI: I mean, south Indian food is better, but still, I wouldn't call it the most photogenic of foods, you know? I'm always struggling myself how to put a picture up of a dish because it's always some brown gravy or orange gravy or yellow gravy.
LAKSHMI: But I don't think it's had its moment. And you're right - Indian home cooking is much different than what you get in the restaurants, and here's my theory about why - Indian culture doesn't have a tradition of going out to eat. In fact, if you talk to my grandparents or even my aunts, when I was younger, when we would go out to eat, we only did that as a family, like, three times a year. And my grandfather wouldn't call it a restaurant; he would say, let's go to the hotel to eat, or he would talk about hotel food because, traditionally, people who ate out were travelers. Either there was a hotel restaurant, or there was a, you know, roadside truck stop that's called a dhaba, north Indian dhabas - D-H-A-B-A.
And, you know, people - because of sanitary issues, because of religious issues, a lot of Indians are wary of going out to eat. Many members in my family will not go out to eat at restaurants that aren't pure vegetarian because they don't want to eat, you know, from plates that have also had meat products on them. Like, in my house in New York, we have a counter that's our version of kosher, which is that no - you know, milk and cheese can be put on there, but no eggs, no chicken, no fish, no meat of any kind on that counter, in that dishwasher or that sink. And that is in deference to my grandmother, who - by the way - has never been to this apartment, I just want to say.
LAKSHMI: But on the off chance that she will come, I want to keep that pure, so she has no excuse.
SHYONG: (Laughter) You want her to be able to cook there.
LAKSHMI: Yeah. You know, the food that's made at home is much less rich and isn't as heavily spiced. Of course, there are condiments and chutneys, but this is also a myth of Indian food - that it's all spicy - because it's not. And I have cousins who, you know, eat less spicy food than many of my American friends.
SHYONG: It's interesting, like, Indian food of the United States still not sort of, like, achieving this penetration, but things like yoga culture, chai tea, turmeric lattes - these are things people are pretty familiar with (laughter) but divorce from the cultural roots of it. Do you have any thoughts about that?
LAKSHMI: That is one of the byproducts of a heterogeneous culture, of an immigrant culture. And that is really what America is. I mean, that's what our show is about, you know? And I think Americans, for good or for bad, are very adept at taking the best, most useful aspects of any culture that comes to settle in America. So, you know, we have Krav Marga (ph) - am I saying that right? The Israeli...
SHYONG: Krav Maga.
LAKSHMI: Yeah. So we do that, but, you know, we're not really familiar with some of the other things of Israeli culture so much. So we're always picking and choosing and then kind of distilling that into a uniquely American culture. And, you know, I have an aunt who teaches yoga in south India, and I can say that those yoga classes are light-years away from the yoga classes at Equinox or whatever.
YAMATO: Along those lines, in your work on "Top Chef" for example, you see a lot of chefs come in integrating different ethnic influences. And I remember one moment on "Top Chef," there is a chef who is not Indian who offered up an Indian dish, and the cutaway was your reaction face going, oh.
YAMATO: Like, especially given all the work you do in the food world, how do you feel about these ongoing conversations over authenticity and appreciation versus culinary appropriation?
LAKSHMI: That's a great question. I mean, it's a big topic, as you can imagine. I'm never offended when people wear a bindi who are not Hindu or wear a sari who aren't Indian. I take it as a compliment that people are enjoying my culture, be it the food, the music, whatever. However, that being said, I think the questions of appropriation come when, you know, you all of a sudden take a recipe and you make it your own, and you call it a stew or something, and you don't actually say that the origins of this recipe are from X, Y and Z.
And as someone who always came to food from an anthropological standpoint of - you know, for me, it's exciting to discover sumac, which is a Middle Eastern ingredient, which I first had in college because I had Middle Eastern friends, and we would go out to shawarma or whatever. And then when I went to Jordan and to Syria, I saw how people used it. And so when I use sumac, you know, I say, I'm putting sumac in this dish, and sumac is from, you know, the countries of the Levant. And it also grows - the plant, you know, sumac, has a berry on it, and that berry is dried and powdered, and that also grew in America. In fact, Native Americans used it in their cough syrup.
That stuff naturally interests me, and where food comes from interests me because you can tell a lot about a culture through the food they eat. And you can even trace the history of a certain people by their cuisine. Like, if you look at Spanish cuisine, you will see cumin, and you will see pomegranate, and you will see all these things because of the Jewish people that were living before the Spanish Inquisition in Spain because of 700 years of rule by North African Moors - all these things. And that to me is important because you can't just take the ingredients and remove the people or the history from it, you know? It's sort of denaturing it.
So, you know, but there are shades of it. Like, we're evolving our customs and our rules about how to do that well, and that evolves every year, every decade. You know, a decade ago, I would have called a Thai ingredient kaffir lime leaf. It's listed in my book from 12 years ago as kaffir lime leaf. But today I would call it makrut because I understand the origins of why it's called kaffir. And as somebody whose ancestors were probably called a kaffir, you know, that makes sense to me.
So, like, this whole enthrallment with turmeric, for example (laughter) - turmeric is something that's been around for 5,000 years. And so now we're putting it in everything because we've discovered Ayurveda without really understanding that, even in Ayurveda, there is a balance. So it's not about putting turmeric in everything because it's anti-inflammatory, but it's understanding that some bodies need turmeric, and some bodies don't.
We are an instant culture. We don't often take the time to really investigate where the things we fall in love with are coming from. And so, you know, another example where it happened to me, you know - again, in my cookbook "Tangy, Tart, Hot And Sweet," I have a recipe for something called Mexican mac and cheese. Now, the reason I called it Mexican mac and cheese is because it has Mexican oregano. It has jalapeno escabeche - or pickled jalapenos. It tasted like a dish that would come out of a Mexican kitchen because it had Mexican ingredients.
But people took me to task recently when I put that recipe up on Instagram because they said, well, you know, this dish doesn't exist. Like, we don't make macaroni and cheese in Mexican culture. So, like, why are you appropriating - you know, how can it be a Mexican mac and cheese? Well, the truth is I've actually traveled a lot in Mexico. I've filmed there. I have friends there. I vacation there year after year.
And yes, it's true; they don't make macaroni and cheese sauce. But they do do a lot of gratins like calabacitas, which is zucchini or squash made, you know, with cream and butter and cheese and, also, by the way, putting crunchy things on top that, you know (laughter), get toasted and stuff in the oven. So to me, it didn't seem like that much of a stretch. Had I written that recipe today and published it in a book today, I would say mac and cheese with Mexican oregano and escabeche just to cover my ass because, you know...
LAKSHMI: ...Why would I want to offend anybody or steal from any culture? You know, my whole career is based on travel and illuminating my, you know, reading public or viewing public to the nuances and particular beauties of different cultures.
SHYONG: Yeah. I mean, it makes sense what you said about a new set of rules and everyone trying to learn them and form them, you know? And now I think it's just more people involved in making the rules. But I could talk about this topic for a long time, and you definitely could, too, so we should do a whole podcast about that.
But I wanted to ask you about "Never Have I Ever," which is a new Netflix show written and produced by Mindy Kaling. Since you're an Indian American girl who grew up in LA and it's about an Indian American family in the San Fernando Valley, there have been a lot of interesting conversations about Indian American identity with respect to the show's presentation of it. And I'm just wondering, have you been watching, and what are your thoughts?
LAKSHMI: Oh, yeah. I mean, you obviously don't follow me on Instagram, Frank, because I did...
LAKSHMI: I just recently did a post about it. We watched it after "Top Chef" finished last Thursday, and "Top Chef" finishes airing at 11:00 p.m. So we started, as a family, to watch it at 11:00 p.m., and we watched the whole season. We binged all 10 half-an-hour episodes at once, you know? So we didn't go to bed that night until, like, 3:30, 4:00 in the morning. It's great because, first of all, regardless of whose culture it's about, the writing is superior, and it captures, you know, the different concerns and insecurities of parents and teenage children. And it also captures the push and pull of an immigrant family living in a Western country. So, you know, there's so much in that show to identify with, whether you're south Indian or not.
But, you know, as somebody who is Indian and has grown up in this country, I am used to seeing Indians represented in such a caricaturist way - caricaturistic (ph) way? I don't know.
LAKSHMI: Like Apu in "The Simpsons."
LAKSHMI: And, you know, to be fair, there are many Indians in this country that fit that stereotype that Apu embodies, but that is not the only stereotype. That is not even the reality of what most Indians are like. And India is a very special country because it's like Europe under one government. So you can travel for just an hour by car and people will be speaking a different language - not a different dialect necessarily, a different language, a language that is as different, you know, from the other language an hour away as German is to French, with different root languages and everything else. And people will be praying to a different god and dressing a different way and eating different foods.
So it is hard to represent the variety of the Indian diaspora to begin with. You know, whenever I saw Indians on TV, they were always called Patel (ph), and they were always north Indian. And, you know, all they ate was tandoori chicken, you know?
LAKSHMI: And, you know, many Indians in India are purely vegetarian. So to see - I mean, I almost had tears in my eyes through my laughter because to see a south Indian family, to hear a mother call her child Kanna (ph) - which is what I call Krishna, you know, my biracial daughter - was a huge moment for me. I would have killed for a show like that. It would have made my adolescence a lot more bearable.
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YAMATO: How did you see yourself reflected in the world or on TV or film, if at all, when you were growing up? Like, so many of us honestly didn't - right? - or didn't feel like there's anything approximating our lived experiences. But who did you look to, who did you see when you looked out into the worlds of entertainment or even literature or fashion, which is your first career that you broke into? I mean, you also broke into these spheres which are dominated by white men. So I'm curious, like, what was your experience at that age? What did you see reflected back to you?
LAKSHMI: Nothing was reflected to me.
LAKSHMI: I just had to respect the truth and accept the truth that there just weren't people like me in media, you know? By the time I got to college, there was Sanjay Gupta. That was it. Like (laughter), you know, or they were playing some, like, Pan Arab-slash-Indian terrorist. But it was always, like, this nebulous thing, you know? And so I just never thought that - that's why "Never Have I Ever" is so - you know, just so moving to me. But I - you know, I stopped looking for things that I could relate to.
It was really hard because, like I said, even though most of my education is in America and I feel like I'm just like any other American kid, you know, I would go back to India for three months every year because my parents didn't - my mom didn't want me to lose my Indian culture, didn't want me to lose the language. And so when I went back to India, even though everyone looked like me, I couldn't relate to them at all. Like, I didn't know any of the Bollywood songs, and I would get bored watching Bollywood movies. First of all, they're three hours' long.
LAKSHMI: And half of it is a musical, and none of it is realistic, you know, even today. So I don't like Bollywood films. I don't know Bollywood films. You know, I obviously know who Priyanka Chopra is, and I obviously know who Deepika Padukone is and two of the, you know, most famous male actors. But that is my sum total of knowledge. Like, I cannot name Indian Bollywood titles to save my life unless they're from the '70s and '80s (laughter) because my family knew that. So I didn't have a lot to relate to. And I couldn't relate to being a completely American kid because my mother did remarry. And my stepfather is also of Indian descent. But he - his ancestors were taken to Fiji as indentured laborers by the British 200 years ago. So he had never been to India until my mother took him. And his rules and regulations were even more medieval than, you know, my grandfather sitting in south India. So I couldn't relate to that. And my house, where my mom still lives, is really close to my high school. And so all the kids would walk by my high school, you know, in the morning, in the afternoon. And I couldn't even talk to a boy at, like, 3:30 in the afternoon on my front lawn without my stepdad going berserk.
LAKSHMI: It was a huge issue. And so it just - word got around school that, oh, yeah, she's the - you know, that's the girl with the crazy dad. Like, just cross the street and do not meet her eye if you're a boy.
YAMATO: Oh, wow.
SHYONG: I wanted to turn to asking about, well, news and politics in India. For me, as a Taiwanese American, politics in Taiwan are so polarizing with my relatives that I really try to stay away. And the politics and nationalism of the U.S. is already enough for me. I was wondering, as a South Asian American, do you feel an obligation to follow news and politics in India and try to raise awareness and advocate?
LAKSHMI: I don't unless there are issues of equality. I don't live in India. I'm not governed by those rules. I don't pay Indian taxes. And I don't - you know, I don't understand what a normal person or middle-class person's day-to-day life is like in India. So - but I do know that I am against Indian nationalism. I don't like the current prime minister, you know, at all. I think he's using religion to be divisive. And I think he secretly wants to cleanse India of Muslims. And I think that's atrocious. You know, and I think that a lot of reasons that there's so little equality in India is because of the patriarchy. I mean, you think American patriarchy is bad, you should see Indian patriarchy, I mean, in spite of us, by the way, having huge temples all over the country to female goddesses. Like, you know, it's such a contradictory thing.
But - so as a feminist, I do comment on things that have to do with gender or equality. And then, with the gender politics, you have to also handle the class system. I'm a privileged Indian person who was born into a Brahmin family. I don't agree with all of the privileges that that has afforded people of my caste. And it's hard because sometimes I get into arguments with my immediate family that I love dearly, aunts and uncles who, you know, raised me and cousins who I love like brothers and sisters, but who have bought into this kind of right-wing agenda. And I have fights with my uncles who, you know, are really big male chauvinists, (laughter) you know?
LAKSHMI: And luckily, I'm a grown woman and they don't have any dominion over me. But, you know, I take them to task for that kind of stuff.
SHYONG: On this podcast, we talk a lot about the decision of how Asian to be in your job. And for me, like, that's how much to advocate for Asian issues, how much to, you know, write about Asian American stories, you know? And that comes with its own sort of set of challenges. Do you spend a lot of time thinking about what role your ethnic identity plays in your work and what role it should play? Do you have people kind of assuming you're an Indian food expert, you know? Do you present yourself this way? Do you think that you should be? Yeah.
LAKSHMI: I cannot separate my ethnicity from my identity. I think that my Indian upbringing has given me a body of knowledge that put me ahead of my American counterpart because of my knowledge of spices and where I come from. So I don't mind when people ask me questions about Indian cooking. And I'm very honest and say, like, well, I'm from south India. I'm not from Kashmir. So this is what I understand. But we should probably ask a north Indian person.
As far as, you know, considering it in my advocacy work, I do consider it very prominently in my thinking. I signed on to be a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Development Programme specifically because it is my belief that a lot of economic and developmental issues in these kinds of countries is because of gender roles and cultural bias that has existed, rules that have been ingrained for generations and generations. And I think India is a big part of that. And so the work that I do with the United Nations is solely based on those kind of issues. And also, like, I support charitable causes.
It always makes me laugh when, like, I get - you know, when I pipe up about something American and, you know, somebody will say, like, why don't you, you know, do something for your own country? Like, you never talk about Indian stuff. And I'm like, well, I actually support a school of 280 children in south India. I just don't talk about Shanti Bhavan if, you know, it's not germane at that moment. I'm very, very tied to my Indian identity. But I believe that it's possible for me to be Indian and American at the same time, and that even if I'm Indian or American, that that doesn't preclude me from doing something about AIDS in Africa. You know, I believe that we are in such an interconnected world, and we've seen that with corona. You know, my health is also dependent on some mother's health in Africa or Thailand or Colombia. And we need each other on this planet. We cannot live in a vacuum. And, you know, that's certainly true of America.
And in a way, you can say that America is a microcosm of the world and sort of a social experiment in that respect, which is why it was so important for me to do "Taste The Nation." You know, "Taste The Nation" was really born out of a frustration of hearing, all my life, other people define what it means to be American or other people get to say what is American food. And that definition of what - who gets to be and call themselves an American and what constitutes American food, really, traditionally, growing up, did not fit what I was seeing on the ground.
You know, I grew up and I was going to my friends' houses and I would have panic, and I would have, you know, burritos, and I would have Indian food, and I would have, you know, Chinese food. And so to me, listening to those kids, doing math homework with those kids, you know, playing with those kids - they were American. They were just as American. They just ate different foods. And unless you are Native American, even if you have white skin, you too are descendants of immigrants. It may be third or fourth generation versus, you know, my daughter, who is first generation, but it's all the same.
And so it was very important to me to say, OK, well, let's actually travel the country. Let's actually look at what American food is like. Like, what are people eating? And you have research from Uber Eats and different things like that where you can tell what kind of foods Americans are actually ordering a lot of takeout of or what they like. I mean, people buy more sriracha than they do ketchup today.
YAMATO: (Laughter) That's awesome. I love hearing things like that. And, actually, I really love the concept of "Taste The Nation." I think in the very first moments of the very first episode, we hear you say, what exactly is American food, and what makes us American? And the answer is all of this, right? It's all of these different places and cultures that you traveled to over the course of this season. I wanted to ask you to share one of your favorite scenes from making "Taste The Nation." I know it's a very personal project for you. The concept is yours, correct?
LAKSHMI: It started out as a cookbook. You know, it had been a while since I had done a cookbook, and I was kind of rooting around in my head to think about what did I want to spend the next two years of my life doing. And, you know, I was seeing, again, a lot of, like, new American cuisine, so-called, in restaurants and stuff.
And then, you know, just in the process of doing a lot of the research for the book, I was going to do a show on immigration with my producing partner. And then I, you know, created this huge research document for my publisher, and I showed my partner that, and he said, you know, this is the show; we have to combine our immigration project, which wasn't necessarily about food, with your cookbook idea because this is something that people can immediately identify with, you know? That plate of pad thai or kebabs can be the gateway drug to, you know, these cultures.
And that was a direct offshoot of my work, my advocacy work, on immigration issues with the ACLU. And that came about, you know, only after the election and when I saw this administration really vilifying various ethnic groups, whether with the Muslim ban or the separation of families that was happening at the border. So I was getting very politically active in a way that I had never been in my whole life before. And then, you know, intellectually, sort of growing the research for the food, and then all of that kind of came together.
And I'm really proud of "Taste The Nation." It has been a labor of love. And for me, some of the greatest scenes have been when our participants talk about what the foods mean to them and how important it is to their emotional life because I've had a career in food for 20 years, and a lot of food programming, including my show "Top Chef," is much more analytical or demonstrative or critiquing, right? We see cooking shows where they teach you how to make something, or there's a competition show - you know, first with "Top Chef," now with a lot of others after. Or you see, you know, kind of people criticizing restaurants or whatever.
But most people, most human beings on this Earth, have a much more visceral, emotional relationship to the food that feeds them consistently, and I wanted to look at that because the identity of the food is reliant on the identity of the people eating it. And that was interesting to me. And so when I hear, you know, Rosa in the Peruvian episode talk about the tamales that she gives to her students or I - you know, I talk with Naz Deravian who I cook with for her family - and, you know, I had a lot to talk to her about because A, I was already familiar with her cookbook. I had actually judged it for, you know, a food contest. But also because she had children who were biracial like me. And so, you know, I wanted to see how she navigated that and how her kids, who are very similar in age to Krishna, you know, felt about their food.
And so scenes like that - it was the quiet moments. You know, when Naz picks up the book and reads the poem in Farsi that her mother wrote about Iran in 1982 that is so applicable to what's going on today, I got goose bumps. And I felt like it was a huge privilege to go into these people's homes and see what their lives were like and really, you know, have them share very deep, intimate feelings about their own identity, about their own place in American society, about how they were dealing with the world through work or just through living. You know, that to me was a gift because you scratch the surface and everyone has an interesting story. You just have to be patient and willing to let it come out of them the way they want to say it.
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YAMATO: Now it's time for our segment - bad Asian confessions.
SHYONG: It's where we sort of talk about a time where some situation or happenstance made us feel like a bad Asian, and we usually lead by giving our own bad Asian confessions. And today, mine is, like, I feel like kind of a bad Asian because I'm, like, so into Japanese culture that I feel like I'm fetishizing it like a white guy, on that level.
SHYONG: Like, I own so many bento boxes. I, like, - I've watched so many Japanese cooking shows. Like, it's, like, a problem, you know? Like, the Mitsuwa in West LA is, like, my happy place. I just go there for fun. It's, like, my only sort of, like - anyway, so I feel like a bad Asian for, like, fetishizing Japanese culture.
YAMATO: Or does that make you a super appreciative Asian (laughter)?
SHYONG: I hope so. I hope so.
YAMATO: I have one, actually, that is also food-related. So I'm fourth-generation Japanese American, Padma, and one reason why your writing and your work resonates with me is because some of my earliest food memories have to do with the food that my grandmother made. And Japanese grandmothers do this thing, a lot of them - OK, most; probably all of them - where they make umeboshi at home, pickled plums, and they keep those jars in the family for years and years. And our family has one last jar that was canned in 1989.
And my bad Asian confession is that I wish that I had learned how to make umeboshi from my grandmother when I had the chance. Like, Padma, you talk about learning all these recipes that were passed down generation after generation, and I think that's so special and so beautiful, and that's one thing that I wish that I had done.
LAKSHMI: Yeah. I have a much more degenerate example...
LAKSHMI: ...Of how I'm a bad Asian. I'm trying to think of which one I should pick.
SHYONG: Let's hear it.
LAKSHMI: You guys, these are, like, lightweight confessions. I don't - big deal. You like Japanese food. And I bet if you went online, you could find out how to make umeboshi pickles. Or ask Frank, he probably knows.
LAKSHMI: But, I mean, mine is terrible. My - I don't even know if I should admit it. Mine is that, you know, I was cooking something Indian, and some of my relatives are vegetarian, and I mistakenly used chicken stock in a vegetarian dish, and I did not tell my family that I did it. So...
LAKSHMI: ...I inadvertently made them sin without - you know, it's sort of like giving somebody who keeps kosher a ham sandwich or something.
YAMATO: Do you have a bad Asian confession you'd like to share with us? Call us at 213-986-5652. That is 213-986-5652, and maybe we'll even play it on the show.
SHYONG: OK, that's it for Episode 14 of our podcast. Thanks for listening. "Asian Enough" is hosted by me, Frank Shyong, and by Jen Yamato. Our senior producer is Rina Palta. Our executive producer is Abbie Fentress Swanson. Our engineer is Mike Heflin, and our original music was composed by Andrew Eapen. This podcast is dedicated to the memory of Liyna Anwar.
YAMATO: And come back next week, when we will talk with United States Senator Kamala Harris.
KAMALA HARRIS: I was raised with a deep sense of pride in my cultural background. I've never had an identity crisis (laughter).
SHYONG: If you like "Asian Enough," subscribe and leave us a five-star review on Apple. Special thanks to Julia Turner, Geoff Berkshire, Reed Johnson, Shelby Grad and Clint Schaff.
YAMATO: We hope you're enjoying this podcast, created by the journalists at the LA Times. But right now, access to facts has never been more important, and the Times is in the business of reporting them. So stay connected, and please subscribe because your subscription helps support the production of podcasts like this one and our award-winning journalism. Visit latimes.com/supportlatimes to subscribe.
SHYONG: And remember, don't be too hard on yourself out there. Sometimes a bento box is just a bento box.
LAKSHMI: Big deal - you like Japanese food.
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SANDERS: Thank y'all so much for listening to that episode of "Asian Enough" from the LA Times, featuring writer, model and TV host Padma Lakshmi. If you like what you heard, subscribe to the podcast today. Find that podcast on Apple Podcasts or Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. It's called "Asian Enough" from the Los Angeles Times. Also, come back to this feed later on this week for another episode of IT'S BEEN A MINUTE. All right. Be safe. We'll talk soon.
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