There’s a saying in tamil about good cooks: ’Her hand has a sweet aroma to it,’" says Padma Lakshmi, host of the hit Bravo reality show Top Chef, suggesting that the ability to create wonderful meals is a gift that cannot be taught. Then she confesses that her own dishes are sometimes disappointing when she makes them for people she doesn’t like.
Barefoot and happily focused on the task at hand, Padma is dropping pistachios into a skillet of smoldering cumin for a rice pilaf. She is preparing dinner for some friends, a meal typical of the kind she turns out for her frequent parties. Knobs of ginger, a tin of amchoor (Indian dried mango powder) and stray lemons litter the countertop—ingredients that will find their way into an irresistible starter of kathi rolls (crispy rolls filled with ground turkey) and a dish of sautéed zucchini tossed with fresh dill. The main course: a succulent fish stew. "I use center-cut mahimahi, because the flesh holds up better," Padma says as she nestles the fillets into a curried coconut broth, proposing one solution to the old problem of fish falling apart in Indian sauces.
Although Padma is a successful model and actress (she will begin filming Exclusion sometime in the next year, directed by Deepa Mehta, who made the Oscar-nominated Water), her love of food has always led her back to the kitchen. As the star of Padma’s Passport and a host of the Planet Food documentary series, both on Food Network, she gamely cooked and ate her way through a multicultural travelscape. Her first cookbook, Easy Exotic, is a "culinary scrapbook" of her life, she says, integrating memoirs and healthy recipes inspired by cuisines around the world. A second book, due out early this fall, Tangy, Tart, Hot & Sweet, is a more ambitious, broadly international compendium, with recipes ranging from quick snacks to complex projects.