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The Simple, Revolutionary Joys of ‘Salt Fat Acid Heat’ (Column)

This year, I’m thankful for salt, fat, acid, and heat.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Samin Nosrat has changed the way I think about food: the acts of understanding it, making it, and most importantly, loving it. I’ve watched her meticulous, compassionate “Salt Fat Acid Heat” series several times over in the month since it came out, trying to absorb its lessons and warmth like her vegetables did generous heapings of salt. Because even after so many years of salivating over food travel shows (there’s truly no job that sounds more appealing than traveling the world through food), Nosrat’s version surprised and thrilled me in just about every way.

Directed by Caroline Suh, the series weaves between gorgeous shots of dishes and vistas and practical lessons, bringing the best of both worlds together in a way that makes you wonder why it took so long. Taking cues from her seminal cookbook of the same title, Nosrat delves into salt, fat, acid, and heat as the cornerstones of good cooking by traveling to a new and particularly relevant country in each episode. In order to prove why fat can be both an indulgence and necessity, she goes to Italy to explore the origins of cheese, olive oil, pork, and homemade pasta. To demystify salt, she lands in Japan, where thousands of different salts (including those found in traditional accouterments like soy and miso) lend different textures to every meal. To prove the power of acid slicing through an otherwise bland meal, she goes to Mexico, sampling salsas and fruits so sharp they make her suck the juice through her teeth with joy. Finally, she goes back home to Berkeley, Calif. in order to play with heat, bringing everything she’s learned and taught together in order to make a meal. By distilling food down to these four most basic elements, Nosrat is able to both celebrate the cuisines of each country while uniting food cultures across the world in their respective masteries of salt, fat, acid, and heat.

But even though the demonstrative aspects of this series have proven the most useful in my daily life (my roasted vegetables will never be the same, thank god), the reason why “Salt Fat Acid Heat” nestled its way into my heart is because of how it consciously makes room for people who rarely get to show off their knowledge like they do here.

To wit: it’s rare to see travel shows star women as hosts or experts, let alone an Iranian-American one like Nosrat. Growing up Iranian-American myself, I knew how important food was to Persian culture (all you had to do to know that was look at the mountains of rice inevitably adorning our tables, always far more than we could handle and more delicious than anyone could anticipate). Still, I’d gotten so used to no one outside the community acknowledging as much that to hear Nosrat wax poetic about crunchy rice tahdig and the zips of acid Persian cuisine holds dear was genuinely startling, in the best way.

As with most genres, food travel shows tend to center around white guy tourists, figures that have long been designated the default audience proxy. One of the reasons why Anthony Bourdain was so good was because he was self-aware enough to actively push back against that role, always knowing when to step back and let local chefs take the lead — but he still turned to women experts on a relatively rare basis. A common sight on “Places Unknown” was Bourdain and company eating an elaborate home meal prepared by a nearby matriarch, who would accept their praise with quiet satisfaction before disappearing again into the background.

“Salt Fat Acid Heat” gives those matriarchs the spotlight and the space to express themselves and their traditions. Nosrat plays happy sous chef to women who teach her how to make Italian pesto, Japanese miso, and Mexican turkey, all from loose recipes passed down over the years to become cemented in delicious tradition. (She also speaks both Italian and Spanish, which lends a refreshing informality to her time in the corresponding countries that other food shows tend to lack in translation.) By the time “Heat” rolls around, Nosrat enlists her own exacting mother to help make Persian rice, a personal and complicated process that also serves to tie together all the lessons of the series.

All these segments are stark and sensitive reminders that for all the pomp and circumstance of Food Culture, the fundamentals of cooking were born and thrive in the home kitchen. Great food comes from trial, error, and love for the people eating it threaded all the way through. Hopefully more will follow “Salt Fat Acid Heat’s” lead and not just acknowledge as much, but celebrate it with a warm meal and warmer heart.

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