The United States is a large and diverse area with many different ethnicities and nationalities contributing together to help mold and shape the country. In Hulu’s Taste the Nation, award winning cookbook author and television host, Padma Lakshmi, explores various regions of America speaking with the immigrant communities and seeing how their food cultures helped influence the country’s culinary tastes.
The show has a keen sense of storytelling and is able to make the spotlights on the cuisine of each episode compelling. There is a good mix of the history of each group and how they came to that particular region, thoughtful conversation with people from all walks of life, and of course, plenty of cooking. The episodes on the Gullah Geechee and Native Americans are especially informative.
One aspect of Taste the Nation I enjoyed is for the most part, the show bypasses the dining rooms of chic trendy restaurants for more intimate environments such as kitchens, back yards, and garages. This keeps a focus on the food rather than a jet setting lifestyle and provides the viewer with an inviting feel to better soak up all the knowledge and culture of the featured group.
The series tries to provide an accessible entry point for the viewers into these cultures by beginning with familiar foods such as burritos for Mexican, pad thai for Thai, and kebabs for Persian. Also, while Lakshmi helps prepare dishes with her guests, there’s a real emphasis on the ingredients forming a better connection with the food. Naming all the assorted components of the dish in the native language is a nice touch as well.
In an industry that is overwhelmingly white and male, it is nice to be exposed to chefs of color, especially those that may not have a high national profile. There are even mini spotlights on women in the culinary field from authors to chefs. It is intriguing to hear the semi-tragic story of how Chef Saipin Chutima came to the U.S. and her struggles managing a family and a restaurant. However, it turned out well for her as she is a James Beard Award winner for her restaurant, Lotus of Siam.
What was surprising about Taste the Nation is seeing Lakshmi in a whole different light. She comes off different than the host/judge of Top Chef that I’m familiar with (BTW, checkout the Power Rankings of this season). You see a much softer and more approachable side as she journeys across the country trying to genuinely learn more about these immigrant stories.
She isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty and do the hard work either including harvesting sugarcane, brewing beer, and foraging for food in the desert. Her Bizarre Foods moment is entertaining when she eats grilled pack rat. Lakshmi even provides a small glimpse into her personal life in the Indian food episode as we meet her mother and she shares her fear of her daughter losing touch with their heritage.
Some people may be turned off because the docuseries doesn’t hide its politics and it can be in your face at times. Maybe there’s a preference to not mix food with beliefs but it’s difficult to avoid when discussing the immigrant experience.
In addition, some of the episodes can be a bit gimmicky. For example, for the Mexican food episode, Lakshmi constantly brings up searching for a burrito when there is obviously more to the cuisine. Then there is the question of “What is chop suey?” she asks everyone while she makes her way through San Francisco’s China Town. These instances are more minor annoyances and don’t significantly detract from the overall story.
In these current times, we could all stand to learn a little bit more about each other. What better gateway into another’s culture than through food? Taste the Nation uses food as a perfect introduction into the different immigrant groups that help make the United States. Plus, there are some really great Instagram worthy food porn shots.
Taste the Nation is now available to stream on Hulu.