cooking with samin nosrat- salt, fat, acid, heat

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I first came by Samin Nosrat in 2017 via her book, a thick hardcover embossed with stylized microscope views of muscle and fat. The serious black and white cover is more biology textbook than cookbook and fronts a wildly colorful interior. Gorgeous watercolour illustrations replace the slick photography that defines the genre. Handwritten instructionals soften and elevate what could have been a pedantic exercise, and the book is a lovely addition to the graphic cookbooks trickling into the market. I bought it because Nosrat, like me, is an English major; I felt a sense of kinship with someone who understands the difference words and language can make to a discipline that historically hasn’t had much use for them. Recipes have always been laundry lists bulletpointed for convenience, and good food writing is truly hard to come by. I wasn’t surprised to learn that she got her dream job at American institution Chez Panisse by writing the owner- a complete stranger-  a grateful letter mentioning every memorable detail of her first meal there.

So when Netflix greenlit the show, I was beyond ready. 

Samin Nosrat is as gratifying to watch as she is to read. She is authentic and immensely likeable, which by itself is a feat. In this business it’s impossible to be  that earnest without appearing tone deaf or incredibly self indulgent, but she dispenses with any rules. Comparisons with celebrated hellraisers Anthony Bourdain and David Chang are inevitable but unfair. Bourdain liked to wander into surreal, absurdist territory, some of it for shock value, most of it to intimidating effect. Chang (of Ugly Delicious fame) is funny and irreverent. So is Nosrat, except her endearing nerdiness sets her apart. The only things these people have in common are a naked love of discovery, a rejection of artifice and the refusal to take themselves too seriously. 

 

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Here’s what I love about SFAH-  travel- cooking shows hosted by women invest in a brand of heavily curated, aesthetic domesticity. Women are primped for maximum viewing pleasure (think Padma Lakshmi in Top Chef sampling a street paella, pristine white tee and lipstick unaffected, Nigella Lawson pottering about the kitchen, nary a spatter in sight, Tarla Dalal’s level, unruffled delivery and starched pallu– even in the presence of scaldingly hot liquids). Meanwhile male chefs indulge their neanderthal hunter- gatherer instincts, eating sloppily, moaning primally, burping with undisguised delight. Nosrat refuses to nibble primly at her portions, but she also does not pander to literal- minded feminists who want her eating copiously, like she’s got a point to prove. There are plenty of places on the internet where performative hunger is used to challenge notions of femininity (on hilarious Instagram account You Did Not Eat That , pretty, disingenuous people pose with food), but she wants no part in it.

 

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SFAH is radical in how it tackles beauty and the expressing of feelings. Samin’s messy curls, an admitted source of frustration, are right there in HD in all their unstraightened, untreated glory.  Her cratered facial skin and dark circles are pleasantly concealer- free. She is easily moved- by a creamy aged cheese, a tender, translucent sliver of meat, a drop of clear honey sucked off a folded leaf. Her beautiful smile lights up the screen, and her teardrop- shaped bangle (which I want) knocks against the counter as she lays into her dough, just as much of a star as she is.

 

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But Nosrat’s biggest triumph by far is that she is a child of immigrants with visibly brown skin, educating us in a milieu where power- and televised culinary shows-  skew mostly white. When she cooks tahdig with her Persian mother, we are witness to an intimate cultural moment, a personal act of defiance. When she marinates turkey in a cheap plastic tub in a modest backyard in rural Mexico, she’d like us to trash elitist opinions of what constitutes good food. When she samples freshly unearthed miso made by a Japanese peasant, we learn how deprived we are even in abundance, how reliant on mediocre likenesses of the real deal. There are a lot of women in the show- home cooks, restaurant owners, teachers and enthusiasts, fellow- seekers of deliciousness. This was deliberate. ‘One of the extraordinary things about “Salt Fat Acid Heat”’, says The Washington Post, ‘is how many women appear in the show. They are there as friends and cultural guides for Nosrat, or they’re the faces of successful artisanal food businesses. Or they’re elderly home cooks, eager for the chance to reveal their secrets…“It was absolutely intentional,” that the show shows mostly women, and especially older women, said Nosrat. “There would be times where the producers would bring me a list of people” that was full of men, and she would tell them to go back to the drawing board.

 

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There is also the matter of fanciness, a legitimate concern. How many of us have access to the world’s best olive oil or the world’s rarest soy sauce? Nosrat addresses this by giving taste, not ingredients, primacy. She doesn’t want you grieving over your storebought staples; she just wants you to know what the gold standard is, and how achievable good taste is even within limited means. She wants you to know how  to get the most out of your money by examining a cut of meat scientifically. She wants you buying the right kind of salt from your neighbourhood grocer’s. She wants you moving the casserole you’re baking in the oven, because no oven heats uniformly. She’s all about the nuskha and the tareeqa, little hacks that get you sublime results. Eater has an excellent Marxist interpretation of the show’s love of artisanal businesses- you will not regret reading it. 

 

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Queue the show up already and prepare to fall in love with a host whose person radiates a kindness and intelligence rarely seen in the genre. Every episode ends with friends gathering at a table groaning with beautiful, fragrant food, all leading up to a ritual as old as time. May such wonderful gatherings be your lot, and may you always find solace in the glorious alchemy of salt, fat, acid and heat. 

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