How to cook without a recipe
Samin Nosrat is TV’S most likeable chef and she’s revolutionising the old instructional cooking show genre
THERE’S a perfect word that sums up everything about Netflix’s new cooking show, Salt Fat Acid Heat, and it emerges over a meal that the star, Samin Nosrat, is enjoying with her hosts in Japan, where she has just learned the traditional way of making soy sauce. As they tuck into some chicken and rice balls, the elderly woman who has helped prepare the meal laments that the rice balls are not the perfect shape. “The thing I love is wabi-sabi, that handmade quality that makes it human,” Nosrat told her host, using the Japanese term for finding beauty in imperfection.
Wabi-sabi is one of the things that makes Salt Fat Acid Heat, named for the four factors of successful cooking and her cookbook of the same name, remarkable.
The show and its star exude it. It is Netflix’s first instructional cooking show, and it doesn’t look anything like the rest of that genre, which is too often the domain of cheerful domestic goddesses in glossy, polished kitchens. It’s also a travel show – Nosrat takes her viewers to a different country that exemplifies each component in the show’s title – and it doesn’t look anything like those shows, which are usually full of brash men eating organ meats and throwing back beers, either.
Instead, it looks like Nosrat’s life, beautiful in its imperfections.
“It’s funny, when I first started getting cuts of the show and I would show my friends… everyone’s reaction was, ‘It’s really you!’ Nosrat said. “I kept asking them, ‘What did you expect me to be?’ And they said, ‘Well, we thought maybe they would glam you up, or you would be acting differently, but you’re just acting exactly like you act’.”
While Nosrat does not cook the way normal people cook – she’s much, much better – she does some of the same things we do. She winces and
cries her way through dicing a pile of onions. She makes mistakes, as she does when making a loaf of focaccia, and owns up to them. She throws a dinner party in her Berkeley, California, home, and serves her guests roast chicken, and no one drinks out of fancy stemware.
“I’m a total ham, and I have no problem being portrayed as a person who doesn’t know everything,” she said. “I think it’s kind of a teaching tool, because if you see that I might mess something up, and yet we keep going and we make something nice, then maybe you’ll feel like you can mess something up.”
And she eats the way real people eat, even while she’s on camera: Sometimes taking too big of a bite, so she has to pause and chew before she can speak again. She slurps her pasta. When she eats something she really likes, you can see pleasure spread across her face – her eyebrows arch and her mouth might pucker, before she smiles. “Wow, wow, wow, wow,” she says, when she eats some Parmesan cheese in Italy, an experience that brings tears to her eyes.
While these are all endearing and charming characteristics for a food show, the thing that truly sets Nosrat’s show apart from others in the genre is who she is. She’s a Persian-american woman hosting a show in a genre where, usually, the people who look like her show up to make food for the white host to learn about – if they appear in the show at all.
As for the “stand and stir” instructional element of it, the people who host those types of shows usually have names like Martha, Paula, Rachael and Julia.
To put it bluntly: Most travel food shows are about white male discovery. And most home cooking shows are about white female domesticity. Nosrat gently rejects all of that.
“There is a really fine line between being the discoverer and being a curious traveller,” she said. Watching depictions of Persian food on TV, “I am very aware of the feeling of having something taken from you, repackaged, and not being given credit for your own tradition. And that’s something that I never want to do to somebody else.”
To Page 19