Hulu’s incisive, poignant ‘Taste the Nation with Padma Lakshmi’ is 2020’s best cooking show

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At first glance, Hulu’s latest travel and food program, “Taste the Nation with Padma Lakshmi,” appears to be just another celebrity cooking show, following its host from locale to locale as they explore different cuisines and new cities. However, upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that “Taste the Nation” wants us to understand not just the food, but also the people who make it.

“Taste the Nation,” which debuted June 18, follows “Top Chef” host and author Lakshmi as she travels across the United States to explore the culinary heritage of a diverse array of immigrant communities, including Little India in New York City, the Iranian American community in Los Angeles and Little Lima in Paterson, New Jersey. 

Within these enclaves, Lakshmi dines in the homes of local residents, chats with award-winning chefs and visits the farms that provide the community with fresh ingredients. All the while, Lakshmi shows the audience that cuisine is much more than a compilation of regional ingredients and flavors: It’s a point of view, a story passed down from generation to generation.

The show is first and foremost an exploration of different foods, but it emphasizes that food cannot be separated from the history of the culture to which it belongs — and in the case of the United States, the evolution of American cuisine is inextricable from the history of American immigration. 

Food is often emblematic of a particular culture, so when someone has an inaccurate perception of a culture’s food, they have an inaccurate perception of the culture itself. Acknowledging this, the guests on “Taste the Nation” maintain that although inauthentic mainstream dishes such as orange chicken can be tasty, audiences should broaden their horizons and endeavor to understand what lies beyond the offerings most recognizable to a white American audience.

In every episode, we see just how many different shapes one cuisine can take, from fast food to fine dining, home cooking to festival fare. Each interpretation has its own unique history shaped by its circumstances, which explains why many immigrants who faced ostracization and vilification had to confine their cuisine to takeout restaurants and contort it to appeal to white American palates. But, the show tells us, this dynamic is changing: As the descendants of these first-generation immigrants are taking control of the food world, they are defending their claims to haute cuisine, refusing to let their culinary expressions be restricted by white fear. 

In essence, “Taste the Nation” examines the intersection of history and artistry by pushing past the mere showcasing of different dishes and striving to show exactly how each cuisine evolved to where it is today. Food, the show illustrates, does not exist in a vacuum. It is always adapting to changing political dynamics, as seen in the Gullah fishermen whose fishing resources have been negatively impacted by warming waters in South Carolina, or Mexican line cooks in El Paso whose commutes from Juárez take hours due to tightened immigration restrictions.

Though the angle of “Taste the Nation” is timely and its construction well-executed, the glue that binds it all together is its host. Lakshmi acts as the audience’s transparent ambassador, guiding us from city to city and providing us with enough historical context to be able to understand the positions of her guests. Crucially, Lakshmi decenters herself in the process, giving her guests the space they need to tell their stories.

Lakshmi becomes fast friends with everyone she meets, and she connects with her guests on a personal level by opening up with her own experiences as an immigrant in the United States. The palpable emotion in her interviews and her disarming quips add depth and texture to the show, making it richer and more engaging than the average travel-cooking program.

“Taste the Nation” shows us that although food is a key jumping-off point for cross-cultural engagement, it should not be treated as a tourist attraction. Rather, we should use it as a bridge to find common ground and increase our understanding of different experiences. As Iranian American cook Debbie Michail notes in the show’s sixth episode: “Cooking’s fun. That’s the easy part. But connecting and understanding? That’s the work.”

Contact Matthew DuMont at [email protected].