reviews

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Comfort in curiosity

left: original artwork, right: the tea towel itself (creased, stained and used)
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The first episode of Samin Nosrat’s Netflix show, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, opens with the line “Fat. It’s nothing short of a miracle.” If the James Beard award-winning voice, a warm tone laced with excitement, wasn’t enough to communicate the importance of this pillar of cooking, the bold type flashing onto the screen a word at a time seals the deal; “FAT MAKES FOOD DELICIOUS.”

Our introduction to the series, based on Nosrat’s book of the same name, is a quick-cut edit of the chef and food writer working her way through a selection of gelato cones, glorious moments of glee squeezed into a few seconds. This is the first scene of many in which her facial expression allows us to experience the flavours with her; as the beautiful bitterness of the lemon sorbet hits her taste buds, her eyebrows raise and her eyes widen and cross with an energy that almost reaches our own tongues. The theme music is light and playful, no dramatic Vivaldi concerto in earshot, and the choice is perfectly matched to the show’s aesthetic.

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat gives each local cook their own voice, with Nosrat absorbing each experience with the same wonder and passion that someone with no prior cooking experience might hold.

Both the book and series are designed to help people understand how to cook, from the basics up, by mastering the fundamentals. As Nosrat puts it, “just four basic elements can make or break a dish; salt, fat, acid and heat.” And it is the host’s clear and patient teachings that allow us to draw lessons from each of the establishments she visits. A gem of knowledge is offered at every turn. We are led on a journey from field to fork, produce to plate. The show is brilliant at taking us to the source of the flavours and ingredients we love, and shows us that the basic, often overlooked additions, like salt, can raise a dish to a whole new level. 

The importance of knowing how to get the best from these ingredients, as well as considering where our food comes from, is at the heart of this show. We travel not only through continents, but also through time, delving into the past of the Italian travelling butcher trade, the norcini, as well as learning about the ancient Red cows, whose milk adds a sweet depth of flavour to Parmigiano Reggiano. We witness soy sauce fermenting in barrels that are over a hundred years old, a traditional method which is almost extinct in Japan. We leave a trail of salt through the country, littering learnings of seaweed and miso behind us. In Mexico, we are shown a golden rainbow of honey, harvested from the hives that are indigenous to The Maya peoples, techniques passed down from distant ancestors now deeply rooted in the culture. We learn how to make pesto with a nonna, the traditional way which is on the verge of dying out, before Nosrat goes on to educate us about the role fat played in this exchange, reminding us that “entire cuisines are defined by their fat.” In the ‘Salt’ episode, after watching “The Miso Master” pound ingredients into a pot to ferment in the garden for at least two years, the way everyone made miso in her Grandmother’s era, Nosrat defines umami as being the thing that “makes your mouth feel full.” 

This is what the host does best; takes us on a tour of fascinating places, but allows each to speak for itself. Respect underpins this series as if foundations supporting a house. Instead of the pretentious, dominating tone often present in these travelling culinary tours, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat gives each local cook their own voice, with Nosrat absorbing each experience with the same wonder and passion that someone with no prior cooking experience might hold. She shares an oil-slicken handshake with a focaccia baker, cooks and feasts with families, and cheekily takes a mouthful of a freshly cooked turkey before looking around innocently at her Mexican host to check that was allowed, as if a child caught stealing from the biscuit tin. And she shares joy with every one of them, her curls bouncing as she throws her head back with laughter. She doesn’t pretend to know it all; everything is approached as a new experience and she drinks in the teachings that each country offers the same way she drinks the crystal clear Melipona honey in the ‘Acid’ episode. There is no pretence, no alienating language or recipes, just a level of compassion and patience bound to attract professional chefs and amateur cooks alike, making the audience feel welcomed, inspired and included. And in an industry dominated by male voices, it’s refreshing to see women being championed for their culinary skills.

It is what I watch when I want to gain some perspective, to be reminded that food is something to be enjoyed, unashamedly.

Nosrat gives the audience practical tips throughout, from how to store herbs, to how the heat in an oven is distributed. We are taught that “salt brings food to life,” and how to use an acidic marinade to tenderise meat. Passion, delight and a wealth of knowledge are weaved through each episode and united with Nosrat’s infectious enthusiasm for sharing. She is clearly besotted with food; this is not a food critic presenting a facade of love on TV but fat-shaming on Twitter. This is not someone who’s here for the money. This is a compassionate chef with a genuine interest and adoration for flavour, with the experience and talent we need to trust and understand her words. She wants to take us into the world of cultures she adores. As butcher Lorenzo works on a pig carcass, Samin tells him “I’ll translate all your poetry while you work.” She is an expert in teaching us not only the fundamentals of cooking, but also the beauty of food, with her signature charisma and warmth.

Her Iranian heritage shines through when she makes Persian rice, tahdig, with her mother, or Maman, sprinkling saffron into a bowl with a small amount of rice and declaring that using this much of the ingredient is a sign of generosity. They use it for the aroma, the colour and the smell, mixing in the vibrant orange grains just before flipping the pot and releasing the dish. The compacted rice breaks apart, a moment that might require a retake in a more pretentious, perfected cookery show, but with this series it is simply an opportunity for laughter and excitement at the chance to eat the escaped grains. The exchange between these relatives is as natural as it is educational; they joke about agreeing for the first time ever whilst talking about how much salt to use, and describing how the grains of rice should feel between thumb and finger. 

This is not a new program. The cookbook was released in 2017 and the docu-series followed two years later, but it is one I return to again and again. In a culture that’s so diet-focussed, with fat shaming being such a prevalent issue and pressures to avoid certain food groups dominating the media, this is an oasis of love. Love for food, love for traditions, love for the fat and flavours and fun that cooking and eating offers. It is something I sit down to watch with a coffee and a slice of cake when I’m feeling overwhelmed by the stream of ‘detox’ drinks on my timeline. It is what I watch when I want to gain some perspective, to be reminded that food is something to be enjoyed, unashamedly. Sensory pleasure in the most delicious form. Nosrat tells us to be curious and thoughtful, and explains that she just wants to make people feel comfortable, which is exactly how I feel when watching this series. Cooking enables her to share her kindness and to encourage others to do the same. After tasting the 36 month aged parmesan in the ‘Fat’ episode, Nosrat tells the cheesemakers “I think I’m going to live here now…just eat cheese and butter until I die.” And how I’d love to join her.

Image credit: Courtesy of Netflix