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- American author
Padma Lakshmi can trace her initial love of cooking back to afternoons spent in the kitchen with her mom, Vijaya. Today, the host of Bravo’s "Top Chef" and Hulu’s "Taste the Nation With Padma Lakshmi" is continuing to make culinary memories with her own daughter, Krishna, 11.
The two spent much of the past year cooking together in their New York home and recording “quarantine cooking” videos on TikTok and Instagram. In addition to lending a hand when her mom makes dishes such as chicken tagine, Krishna has become a cook in her own right, often making sorbet shakes, and even learning how to fry chicken.
Inspired by their time spent bonding in the kitchen, Lakshmi, 51, recently penned her first children’s book, Tomatoes for Neela.
“I embellished upon some of the stories I used to tell Krishna,” Lakshmi says. “It’s a tale about a mother and daughter who enjoy cooking together, and the story is meant to help children learn about eating seasonal foods, learning to cook and the joy of creating meals together as a family.”
The author of three cookbooks as well as a memoir, Love, Loss, and What We Ate, Lakshmi says she has ideas for several more children’s books.
“I think children eat healthier and become more mindful of the planet when they learn about the origins of food,” she says. “One of my earliest memories is making dosas (a traditional South Indian dish of crepes made from fermented rice and lentils) with my mom.”
Last year, Lakshmi premiered Taste the Nation, her Emmy-nominated show that celebrates immigrants and Indigenous people and their place in American food culture. A native of India who moved to the United States when she was 4, Lakshmi says the idea for Taste the Nation was inspired by her work as an artist ambassador for immigrant rights and women’s reproductive health with the American Civil Liberties Union.
“The show is really about the foods and cultures that connect us as Americans,” Lakshmi says.
“So much of what we considered popular ‘American food’ was actually brought here by immigrants. By visiting these communities across the country and hearing their stories, we learn the history of these immigrants and their dishes and how these foods connect us.”
The second season of Taste the Nation premiered Nov. 4 on Hulu and follows Lakshmi as she explores the rich and diverse holiday food traditions of immigrant cultures across the United States. “This season, we’ll be in Miami for a Cuban Christmas, Los Angeles for Korean New Year and in Cape Cod, where the pilgrims were said to gather with the Wampanoag Indians to celebrate the first Thanksgiving,” Lakshmi says.
Lakshmi prepares a turkey for both Thanksgiving and Christmas. “I start cooking the turkey the night before, starting at midnight and letting it cook low and slow until 6 a.m.,” she says. “Then I keep the turkey warm in the oven while I make side dishes such as roasted vegetables, stuffing and cranberry chutney. I also make homemade gravy and use the leftovers to make turkey pot pie the next day.”
Food and Fitness
Despite being surrounded by delectable foods on both Top Chef and Taste the Nation, Lakshmi makes it a priority to stay fit. In June, she set the internet abuzz after sharing an Instagram photo of herself floating in a swimming pool wearing a red string bikini.
“I spend an inordinate amount of time at the gym,” Lakshmi says with a laugh. “I gain 10 to 15 pounds every season on Top Chef, and I’m at the gym five to six days a week when we’re not filming.”
Lakshmi works out with weights three times a week and also enjoys Pilates and boxing. During the holidays, she and Krishna will often go ice skating at Rockefeller Center in New York City. “If I’m traveling or have a limited amount of time, I’ll jump rope, which is an amazing cardio workout, or run up a flight of 40 stairs in 30 minutes,” she says. “I also drink a lot of water each day and eat a healthy, primarily plant-based diet.”
Fashion Model to Role Model
Although she’s always enjoyed cooking, Lakshmi never imagined she would one day become a cookbook author or host a popular cooking competition. After graduating from Clark University in Worcester, Mass., with a degree in theater and American literature, Lakshmi caught the eye of legendary photographer Helmut Newton, and began modeling for luxury brands including Armani, Versace and Ralph Lauren.
In 2006, Lakshmi joined the second season of Top Chef as the show’s co-host. Today, she also serves as a judge and executive producer on the series.
Off camera, Lakshmi has never shied away from being an advocate and activist for women. In 2009, she co-founded the Endometriosis Foundation of America with Dr. Tamer Seckin, to help raise awareness and fund research for the painful gynecological disorder. The condition, which according to the World Health Organization affects 190 million women and girls of reproductive age globally, is characterized by pelvic pain, long and heavy menstrual periods and severe cramps, as well as bloating, constipation and difficulty getting pregnant.
Although Lakshmi began experiencing symptoms of endometriosis at the age of 13, it wasn’t until she was 36 that Seckin, a New York-based gynecologist and laparoscopic surgeon, diagnosed her with endometriosis and performed surgery on Lakshmi to remove excess tissue.
“For the longest time, I thought I just had horrible menstrual cramps that kept me home several days each month, and I felt too embarrassed to complain about my symptoms,” Lakshmi says. The stigma of women having a low pain threshold continues to persist, she says, and is one of the main reasons women with endometriosis don’t seek out medical help or aren’t taken seriously when they do.
“While awareness of endometriosis has grown, we still need more research, treatment options and better access to care,” Lakshmi says. “Women with severe menstrual cramps are often prescribed strong pain medications, which they don’t want to take long term.”
Although Lakshmi still suffers from endometriosis symptoms, she says the pain isn’t as debilitating as it was years ago. “I’ve found that using CBD or ibuprofen helps the pain, and I also stay hydrated and take a heating pad with me when I’m traveling,” she says.
Enjoying the Moments
Lakshmi also believes in listening to her body and taking it easy on the days she’s not feeling 100 percent. This might involve reading a good book or spending the day with Krishna and their newest family member, a Chihuahua named Divina.
“I’ve never actually been a dog person, but I fell in love with Divina, who was one of 16 pups rescued from a hoarding situation by Animal Haven in New York,” she says. “The pandemic has taught me the importance of slowing down, enjoying each and every moment spent with my daughter.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Padma Lakshmi on food and family.