Friday, July 26, 2019

Food TV Friday: "Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat"

“I’m just gonna live here now. Eat cheese and butter until I die.”
-Samin Nosrat

I’ve gotta admit, “Salt Fat Acid Heat” is my current obsession. I’ve watched all the episodes multiple times, and I have the book (I’m reading through the whole thing in addition to cooking from it, because it’s really more instructional than recipe-focused). “Salt Fat Acid Heat” is the product of Iranian-American self-described cook Samin Nosrat. While working at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, she discovered that four elements are common drivers in flavor in cuisines all around the world: salt, fat acid, and heat. She developed this concept into a cooking class and eventually worked with food writer extraordinaire Michael Pollan. That eventually led to the book and now the Netflix show. The show itself combines some of the cooking instruction of the book with a travel element. Each episode takes place in a different country: Japan, Italy, Mexico, and the US respectively.

The show really works because Nosrat is such a charming personality. She really engages with the people she talks to, and she clearly loves food. She’s quick to both laugh and cry. Let’s go back to that loves food aspect for a minute. It is so rare to see a woman on television, especially one who isn’t skinny, just plain enjoying food. Nosrat never holds back in her enjoyment of food. She weeps in a parmesan cheese factory and erupts in tears and laughter when some salsa in spicier than she expected. She never hesitates to dig in and taste something, even seaweed. The conversation about women and food can be so fraught, and Nosrat just smashes through it all with pure joy. She’s gotten a reputation as a modern day Julia Child thanks to her bubbly personality and tall frame, and she is a delight to watch. Here’s a great video that captures Nosrat’s personality…plus, biscuits!

Another aspect of the show that I like is how many women Nosrat talks to about their food. She enlists the help of Italian Nonnas and Mexican Abuelas in her quest to show how her four elements unite cuisines around the world. So often it seems like food doesn’t become trendy until a hipster bro male chef makes it and sells it in a restaurant, but women have been doing plenty of cooking for centuries. Some of my favorite segments involved making pesto in a mortar and pestle in Italy, making miso in Japan, and making Pavo en Escabeche in Mexico. All of these women have mastered their craft over decades, and Nosrat delights in learning from them. And so did I, come to think of it! It’s such a different way of looking at food television in general. We often idealize a grandmother’s cooking, but we rarely see it on television, especially taken seriously.

As I mentioned before, Nosrat travels to a different location for each of the four episodes. The “Salt” episode takes place in Japan, where we learn about Japanese salt, miso, and soy sauce-making. I had no idea that so many, subtly different types of salt were produced in Japan. The “Fat” episode takes place in Italy, and the parmesan cheese, olive oil, and various types of cured pork made my mouth water. In the summer, I’m a big fan of making a meze platter for lunch with caprese and salami among other things, and this episode made me feel like I do when I’m eating that lunch. “Acid” took place in Mexico, specifically the Yucatan peninsula, and I was fascinated watching a cuisine I don’t know much about. Sour oranges figure prominently, a fruit I didn’t even know existed prior to watching. There was also a sweet lemon, which was also a surprise to me. “Heat” took place in Nosrat’s home of Berkley, California. The highlight of the episode was Nosrat’s mother helping her cook the iconic Persian dish, Tahdig. She also makes a beautiful buttermilk roast chicken, which has become something of a winter holiday tradition for me now. I even figured out a rig to keep the smoke down so I don’t have to constantly man the smoke alarm (I live in a row home, and the first floor is pretty small).

The production value of the show is extremely high, which is probably part of the reason there are only four episodes. I would have loved to have watched more episodes, but I can’t imagine how much it would have cost! The visuals are just stunning. The serenity of being on a boat in Japan and the many colors of the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico are really brought right to the screen. Even the “Heat” episode, which takes place near Nosrat’s home in Berkeley California (not as exotic as the other three episodes) contain little visual details that make it feel inviting. I also have to mention that the beginning of that episode introduced me to a band I really enjoy, The California Honeydrops.

Nosrat has repeatedly said in interviews that if nothing else, she wants her work to inspire people to just get out there and cook. I think she has definitely succeeded. While I’ve enjoyed cooking for quite some time now, she’s definitely made me more intentional in the kitchen. While my doctor doesn’t want me to salt things as much as Samin would anymore (I would seriously give up sugar before salt – this is not easy, people!), she has taught me little details, such as macerating onions in acid before pulling together a vinaigrette, that has made my cooking better. I’ve also heard many people, some of whom I haven’t known to be that into cooking, talking about that buttermilk chicken. The chicken is delicious and not very hard to make. You really should try it!

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