"For us Indians, he's like Hemingway," says Lakshmi, who sat down with PEOPLE and Entertainment Weekly editorial director Jess Cagle to talk about her new memoir, Love, Loss and What We Ate.
"Imagine a young woman in her twenties, who loves books and and who had published her little cookbook and in comes this guy," she says. "I mean, he was the best thing that ever happened to me by a mile. The fact that somebody of that stature and caliber was even interested remotely enough in me to want to take me to lunch was kind of unbelievable."
They met in Central Park for their first date, and ended up in bed together. "He seduced me with his words," she says. "I was pretty hooked."
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To read an except from Padma Lakshmi's new book, Love, Loss And What We Ate, pick up this week's issue of PEOPLE magazine, on newsstands Friday
After Rushdie divorced his third wife, (he assured Lakshmi the marriage had long been over), they moved in together in 2000. Their early years, she says, were "blissful" and full of passion. "For me, it was wonderful because I finally had somebody who understood me because he too was Indian and he was also living in the West and he was very nimble in navigating those two worlds."
But as her career in the food world grew, so did his resentment when she could no longer constantly be by his side. "I just wanted to also do something else on my own," she explains. "I just wanted my own identity."
Meanwhile, her severe endometriosis still undiagnosed at that point, had grown more acute, often leaving her in such chronic pain that she was bedridden and unable to have sex. Their lack of intimacy led to many arguments and at one point, he called her a "bad investment."
Watch more of The Jess Cagle Interview with Padma Lakshmi on People.com all week
Looking back, Lakshmi, who later co-founded the Endometriosis Foundation of America to raise awareness, says, "Endometriosis was definitely a major reason that my marriage failed and I don't think either of us understood it at the time. I think that's also because I hid it to a certain degree, not intentionally but you know, it's weird to talk about your period all the time. It's like the least sexy thing in the world to do."
"I think that Salman took it personally and I think that he felt rejected," she says, "and I can understand that."
Despite the painful split, she says she and Rushdie are now friends. And she's told him about the book. "I told him, 'I just want you to know that I talk about the demise of our marriage and I talk about it because I really wanted to talk about endometriosis and also that you were a huge part of my life.' And he said, 'You have the right to tell your side of the story as you see it.' "
"I mean, look, he's the most famous proponent of free speech," she says. "Plus, he is a big boy. He can take care of it."
Still, she adds, "I think it's going to be hard because I do talk about intimate things and I think that's going to perhaps be difficult for him but I tried to be even-handed about explaining the wonderful years that I had with Salman too. Because I do still love him. In many ways, I consider him still part of my family. I think if you really fall in love with someone, even if you fall out of love with them, you still must have some little portion, some little imprint, on your heart that can never be extinguished or erased."