This story originally ran in January 2019. We’re republishing it today for the premiere of Taste the Nation With Padma Lakshmi on Hulu.
“I don’t expect you to love this,” Padma Lakshmi warns as she slides a red, plastic tray onto the Formica tabletop. “It’s fermented lemon pickles, so it’s a little bitter. It’s a really funky thing.”
We’re at stop No. 3 of Padma Lakshmi’s Very Excellent Food Tour: the Hindu Temple Society of North America in Flushing, Queens, which boasts the best flattop-griddled dosas this side of the Atlantic. If this were an episode of Top Chef, the category would be South Indian dish: There’s a mountain of dosas, including a dramatically cone-shaped one crisped in ghee, a green chili-studded rava dosa that looks like folded lace, puffy white jumbo idli, doughnut-shaped vada, and three different rice dishes —pulihora (tamarind rice), bisi bele bath(lentils and rice), and thayir sadam (yogurt rice). The last one, which she would eat as a kid in Chennai, isn’t like her grandmother’s — could it ever be? — but it’s “actually not bad!” Lakshmi nods approvingly as I scoop the yogurt rice up with the lemon pickle. A sharp fermented bolt spikes the back of my tongue. I feel like a fat, happy baby.
The temple started serving food over 20 years ago, but Lakshmi has been coming for puja ever since it first opened in 1977, when she was 6 years old. Back then, she lived nearby in Elmhurst. Now she lives in Soho with her 8-year-old daughter, Krishna, but she still stopped by the previous week to order four boxes of fresh jasmine garlands for a Diwali celebration she was hosting at her house. “I’ve gotten much more pious after they opened the canteen,” she laughs.
Weeks ahead of our afternoon, Lakshmi laid out a constantly shifting itinerary of what and where we should eat (more time, and we would have gone to An Choi for bánh mì); the temple was re-included after we had a smattering of chaat at Maharaja — North Indian snacks, or “real stoner food” as Lakshmi calls it. “I had to really make some very deep Sophie’s choices about where I should take you,” she explains.
We begin on a rain-slicked November day at the one-stop grocery store Patel Brothers in Jackson Heights, where she skims the aisles in chunky red boots and a leather jacket — a striking contrast to the neighborhood aunties doing their morning shopping — pausing to lecture on everything from neem-infused beauty products to the wall of leguminous plants to a produce aisle tumbling with snake gourds and green mangoes. The mangoes, she explains, can be used in a southern curry served at Hindu weddings; in the north, they’re sprinkled on top of chaat; still, they’re sun-dried and pulverized into a sour powder known as amchoor, which is the secret weapon in her fried chicken. (Dinner guest Chris Rock loves it.)
The entire food tour, with a driver and her assistant, Anthony, on hand, is a flex, and why not? Lakshmi has gamely played the role of culinary ambassador, a conduit between India and the West, for years. Her first two cookbooks — Easy Exotic: Low-Fat Recipes From Around the World and Tangy, Tart, Hot and Sweet: A World of Recipes for Every Day — were about making “global” food accessible for Americans. “People are so into turmeric and ginger and all of that. It’s been very gentrified and hipsterized,” she says as we pass stacks of 25-pound jute sacks of jasmine rice and atta flour. “If it opens Americans to new flavors and ingredients that are more natural and healthy, that’s fine. I don’t care about cultural appropriation. I really don’t.”
“So this is a pet peeve of mine: the chai conundrum,” Lakshmi says as we hit the tea section, noting that when people say “chai tea” they’re saying “tea tea.” “Anthony, can you please make sure we buy some?” (Anthony informs her that he already got some last Saturday.)
“Oh, this is a moment here.” Lakshmi crouches in front of the big, red holsters of Maggi Hot & Sweet Sauce, which she describes as the “Heinz of India,” a cross between ketchup and hot sauce. “It’s the WD-40 of my house. You can’t eat eggs in a home without it.”