You might know Padma Lakshmi as the lovely, smiling, terrifying face of judgment on Bravo’s long-running “Top Chef” (joining the series in Season 2, she’s been personally telling chefs to pack their knives and go for a staggering 16 seasons now). Maybe you know her from earlier work: Lakshmi looks fresh as a daisy, yes, but she’s a tireless food culture veteran, putting out her first award-winning cookbook Easy Exotic all the way back in 1999 and working in front of the lens as a food professional since the early days of The Food Network with “Padma’s Passport.”
Fast forward 20 years and Lakshmi is finally, rightfully, coming out with her own show, “Taste the Nation” (which premieres on Hulu on Thursday, June 18). The goal of the show is to answer a question that’s nagged at Lakshmi over the course of her long career: “What, exactly, is American food?”
In her journey to answer this question, Lakshmi travels to El Paso and Milwaukee; she visits the Gullah Geechee people of South Carolina; she even explores her own Indian heritage cooking in New York City. But what might surprise anyone—anyone not from New Jersey, that is—is the incredible wealth of culinary riches she finds “right in my own backyard,” as she narrates, crossing the George Washington Bridge on her way to Paterson, where she explores the food, drink, and vibrant culture of the Peruvian enclave known as “Little Lima.”
“Paterson really has become the capital of Peruvians here in New Jersey,” one Paterson resident explains, as images of a soccer game, impromptu late-day dancing, and lots and lots of smiling faces roll over the screen. The episode, called “Dancing in Little Lima,” has Lakshmi exploring Paterson’s Peruvian influence in places like a grocery store called Los Immortales on Market Street (where you can get everything from must-have Peruvian staple aji chilies to guinea pig and an incredible, custardy fruit called Lucuma), as well as a local dance studio where a first-generation Peruvian immigrant keeps Peruvian traditional dance and culture alive as each new generation is born into deeper, almost automatic assimilation.
Lakshmi first meets northern New Jersey native and acclaimed chef Erik Ramirez to explore Los Immortales market, talk home cooking (think Arroz con Pollo, Pollo al Vino) with Ramirez’s grandmother and mom. Later she prepares ceviche at one of Ramirez’s award-winning Peruvian restaurants in New York, The Llama Inn (he also owns Llamita and Llama San). Not only do they make a beautiful fluke ceviche, Lakshmi even drinks a small shot of “leche de tigre,” the essential potent curing juice, here made from garlic, ginger, lime, habanero, onion, cilantro stems, over an ice cube. (It looks incredibly refreshing).
Lakshmi, who came to America when she was just four, mines the immigrant experience for maximum connection—e.g., you find out Ramirez’s grandmother had almost the same exact experience as Lakshmi’s own mother, who had to briefly leave her young daughter behind in India when she first came to America.
Furthering the family connections idea, Lakshmi then meets up with first-generation Peruvian-American Cesar Valdivia of The Lomo Truck. It was Valdivia’s father who had a dream of starting a restaurant, with his son eventually stepping in to help with the food truck, all of which they discuss as Lakshmi takes a turn preparing the truck’s signature dish, Lomo Saltado (a Chinese-influenced dish with top sirloin, sautéed onions, fresh tomatoes, french fries, soy sauce, and white rice, among other things).
Inevitably, it might be the home cooking she does with long-time Paterson resident and Peruvian immigrant Rosa Carhuallanqui that brings the issue home: in addition to teaching traditional Peruvian dance to kids in Paterson proper, Carhallanqui tries to keep Peruvian home cooking traditions alive, discussing her own departure from Peru (overtaken by a communist terrorist group called the Shining Path in the 1980s) while preparing Peruvian tamales—unlike their Mexican cousins, made with a mash of yucca and rice, as well as a special Peruvian yellow pepper, saffron, and chicken.
As the episode finishes, Lakshmi is sitting in front of one of Carhuallanqui’s classes—girls and boys dressed in traditional Peruvian outfits, bright, colorful skirts and black slacks—waiting for her to take a bite of one of the Peruvian tamales. The tamale is great, of course, and there’s lots of cheering and dancing, and the episode seems to get closer to answer Lakshmi’s driving purpose with the restaurant series: “I want to explore who we are through the food we eat.” In Little Lima, that means reconciling a dark, complicated past and a brighter complicated future.
The series finishes its inaugural year with visits to Las Vegas and Hawaii, where Padma explores pad Thai and poke, respectively. We’re pretty sure it already hit its high note in Paterson.
Los Immortales Market is located at 71 Market Street in Paterson. Erik Ramirez owns three restaurants in New York City: The Llama Inn, Llama San, and Llamita. You can keep up with the location of The Lomo Truck on social media (they can be reached at 201-800-1983). “Taste the Nation” premieres on Thursday, June 18. If you don’t have Hulu, you can set up a free trial here.Click here to leave a comment