“Salt Fat Acid Heat”
Samin Nosrat invites you to her table
Making pesto in Liguria, Italy
Screencap from Netflix
In no way is Samin Nosrat’s new Netflix miniseries “Salt Fat Acid Heat” (based on her cookbook of the same name) an overtly political show. Nowhere in the 4 30-minute-long episodes does Nosrat say that she is trying to revolutionize the food world, or even the food TV world. But you wouldn’t know that by reading the reviews of her show. In Wired, Jason Parham says that the show “spurn[s] the pallid and passé images of [food] shows past, turning away from white domesticity to a broader vision of food acceptance,” while a headline from Eater boldly calls it “Marxist Fantasy Porn.” Why such political visions of a show that, at its core, is supposed to be just a “how to cook” show?
Maybe it’s because each episode takes place in a different country, and people of vastly different cultures, economic classes and genders are granted respect and time in the spotlight. For “Fat,” Nosrat heads to Italy, where she joins in an olive harvest and makes pesto the traditional way with Lidia, an Italian nonna. “When I learned that we were coming to Liguria,” Nosrat says, “I wanted to make pesto right away because it’s a beautiful lesson about fat’s importance.” Lidia leads Nosrat and the viewers step-by-step through the traditional Ligurian way of making pesto: with a mortar and pestle, the freshest basil you can find, and lots and lots of cheese. Later, Nosrat tears up as she tastes an aged parmesan at the Red Cow Parmigiano Reggiano factory. Watching some of Nosrat’s genuine reactions to food throughout the show are among the chief joys in this series—when she isn’t tearing up, she’s laughing a full-body, exuberant laugh that warms the heart.
Perhaps the political nature of the show is in Nosrat’s implicit championing of craftspeople and small-scale, non-industrialized food products. In the “Salt” episode, for instance, she visits Yasuo Yamamoto, a dedicated craftsman in Japan who makes soy sauce by a two-year process of fermentation in custom-made wood barrels. Yamamoto’s family has been running this business for 150 years, and “Less than one percent of soy sauce production is done this way,” he tells her. “But this is the traditional Japanese way of making it.” When Nosrat tastes Yamamoto’s soy sauce, freshly pressed from the fermenting beans, we watch her furrow her brow and turn her head slightly: this is unlike anything I’ve ever tasted, the gesture says.
Maybe viewers are picking up the democratic overtones because Nosrat is so obviously encouraging amateurism and constant learning in the kitchen over culinary school expertise or expensive kitchen gadgetry. Throughout the show, this Chez Panisse-trained master chef is asking questions of the farmers, craftspeople and cooks she encounters: How do you make this? Why use this ingredient and not this one? Why does it taste like that? She is constantly putting herself in situations where she is the student, and we learn through her. In the “Acid” episode, when she walks through the market with Doña Conchi in the Yucatan, she tastes the passionfruit, sour oranges and sweet lemons from different vendors, puckering and giggling at the surprising flavors. She later learns how to make pavo en escabeche from the older woman, whose simple and sparse kitchen is a reminder that it doesn’t take a lot of expensive tools to make delicious food.
At the end of every episode of “SFAH,” Nosrat cooks a big dinner and shares it with several friends in somebody’s home. There are intimate shots of her hugging guests as they come in and of dishes being passed around the table. The dishes she cooks for these dinners are never complicated, and she explains in detail how they’re each made in a how-to sequence beforehand. Nosrat doesn’t have to say what her politics are, because she is so effectively showing them—the mark of a great storyteller. Build a bigger table, not a higher fence is the saying by which Samin Nosrat does everything, the maxim that infuses every bite of food that she shares with her hosts and guests. As she says in “Heat,” the final episode, “Making good food accessible is really important to me. And any little way that I can do that, from inviting a bunch of friends over for a simple meal to making them help out in the kitchen when they arrive, just helps make it feel like good cooking is in reach for everyone.”