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19.10.2018

On first try, we shut Samin Nosrat’s 2017 blockbuster book Salt Fat Acid Heat almost as soon as we opened it, intimidated by her plunge into the merits of Diamond Crystal versus Morton kosher salt. The book’s title suggested an elemental breakdown of the craft of cooking. We didn’t expect to be transported from our Tata-Salt-laden kitchenette to an American department store with forty different varieties of salt to choose from.

The salt aisle does appear in the four-episode adaptation of the book, but only at the end, after Nosrat has been around the world cooking, eating, learning and teaching us about the core principles of her food philosophy. We are reminded that neither Nosrat nor her prize-winning book are insular or alienating. In fact, Salt Fat Acid Heat is entirely about making the unfamiliar familiar, letting go of fear as a cook and a diner.

It’s this year’s most delightful food show. Over four hours, Nosrat deconstructs the four elements in her title in four different regions of the world. Fat creates flavour and texture, she explains, chasing olive oil, pork fat and cheese in Italy. Salt amplifies both taste and flavour (yes, those are different things), we learn in Japan, through soy sauce and moshio salt. Grannies in the Yucatán Peninsula give her a lesson in the balancing qualities of acidity, a quality found in everything from lime to chocolate and honey.

Some recipe instruction and kitchen tips go in with all the travel and talking. It seems almost quaint and old-fashioned compared to trendier TV forays into degustation. There’s such a strained quality to critically acclaimed shows like Ugly Delicious, another of this year’s big Netflix releases. That show brought us great stories with admirable morals - “Authenticity is a mug’s game” and “Racism gets in the way of good food” - but forced us to consume them with a kind of macho specialist posturing. (A supercut of all the women who get to talk uninterrupted in Ugly Delicious wouldn’t amount to much.)

But Nosrat isn’t a celebrity, although she’s worked at Chez Panisse and knows her stuff. She’s also a teacher and a writer, which is perhaps why Salt Fat is guided by the impulse to demystify food, to listen more than to talk, and also simply to enjoy being in the kitchen. In this respect, it does even better than the book. That is accessible, even approachable, but there’s a reserve to Nosrat’s writing voice that doesn’t prepare you for her joie de vivre on screen.

“Wow,” she says repeatedly, as people hand her things to taste at markets, orchards, factories and farms, revelling in the taste that they want her to experience. Her face is an open book, and her laugh is hearty. “Okay!” she interjects as she speaks American-accented Italian or half-fluent Spanish to her interviewees. “This is so good!”

Her warmth is like salt to the starch of her interviewees, almost none of them celebrities. There are Mexican aunties who are tortilla specialists, meditative Japanese fishermen, neurotic Italian butchers, and other unglamorous, single-minded food people. This is perhaps the real luxury of Salt Fat. Its food shots are glossy and Instagrammable, but it’s Nosrat’s ability to draw out people and illuminate the value of their occupations - fishing for seaweed, or tending to bees - that makes the show so humane.

Perhaps the most heart-warming contrast is with Nosrat’s own mother, whom we meet in the last episode, Heat, in Nosrat’s own Berkeley kitchen. Small, neat and wry, Shahla makes the Iranian rice dish tahdig in her daughter’s kitchen, a needle made from the same material as the bread-knife bustling around her. As they jostle gently, we want to run into the kitchen and make a sambar exactly the way our mom taught us, Tata Salt and all. So good!

Getting there: Watch the show on Netflix and get the book here.

Photo Credit: Netflix

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