Padma Lakshmi, the Emmy-nominated co-host of Top Chef, knows a thing or two about spice. Growing up between Chennai, India, and New York, where her mother settled to escape the stigma of divorce, Lakshmi learned that home is where the heat is. In her steamy memoir, Love, Loss, and What We Ate, she dished on breaking the mold as the first Indian-born supermodel, her former marriage to Salman Rushdie, and the various men in her life. With all that fire in her orbit, Lakshmi put her expertise to good use in her new book, The Encyclopedia of Spices & Herbs ($40, HarperCollins), with Judith Sutton and Kalustyan’s, a New York spice and grocery store where—as she tells Manhattan below—her mother introduced her to her life’s true love.
The scent of peppercorns transports me to my grandmother’s kitchen in Chennai. Sumac reminds me of cooking in college in Massachusetts; one of my friends was from Iran and she would sprinkle it on rice and transform it into something magical, tangy and fragrant. I’ve spent a lot of my life trolling spice markets. It’s one of my most treasured activities. So I thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a guide to take to all these exotic bazaars?
Many Americans think spice is one bottle of curry powder, but my mom would use two or three different types of curry blends in one meal. She never wanted two dishes to taste the same. She would shop at Kalustyan’s because there she could find 17 types of dried chilies or kokum, which is the skin of a plant that’s a relative of the mangosteen. You don’t eat the fruit; you eat the shell. It’s a little bit leathery and dries to a dark chocolate color, and its flavor is tart and fruity, but not as sweet as tamarind. When you add it to stews or lentils, it turns everything pink. It delighted me to no end as a child. I didn’t eat a lot of desserts, but my mom would let me buy fennel seeds, the ones that are candy-coated and multicolored, and now I carry on the tradition with my daughter, Krishna, who is 6. There’s nothing more exciting than discovering an ingredient and cooking with your child. If she has a hand in her food, she’s more likely to eat it. It’s important to teach kids that spices are fun and not scary, and that you can pack so much flavor into a dish with them.
Try something unexpected this fall. Put down the cinnamon and reach for allspice, which isn’t a blend of spices but a berry that grows in the Caribbean. It’s in jerk seasoning. Crush it into your poached pears. Add garam masala to butternut squash soup for a kick. The more aromas you try, the more you’ll raise your tolerance or heat index. And that’s a good thing.
Spices can be healing, like ginger and turmeric, which are anti-inflammatory and can stimulate circulation or digestion. Are they sexy? I’ll put it to you this way: Any time you raise your metabolism with chile, cloves or cardamom, you get your juices flowing. I have no scientific proof, but if you look at all the countries where people eat lots of spices, there are population booms. I never leave home without them. Seriously, I’ll pack sambar powder, curry or kaffir lime leaves in my bag. You never know when you’re going to need them.