We live in angry times. We are surrounded by and pummelled by, among other indignities, inaccuracy, overstatement and righteous indignation. And still, we have to eat.
Shows about food should be a retreat from all that frenzy, but many are not. Competitive cooking shows are among the most manipulative and irritating in the reality-TV genre. Other food shows are more about narcissism or privilege, thus cheapening the experience for the viewer.
Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat (streaming on Netflix starting Thursday) is blessedly free of pretension or manipulation. It’s a lovely, easygoing and down-to-earth series hosted by New York Times columnist Samin Nosrat and based on her award-winning cookbook of the same name.
Nosrat’s approach is that there are four elements that make all food appetizing, all over the world. Her mission, she always says, is to demystify cooking delicious food. In the series she goes to Japan to learn about salt; to Italy, where she delves into fat by working with olive oil, cured meats and cheese; to Mexico, where acidity is a crucial element; and then to her home base in Berkeley, Calif., where she explores heat by making crispy tadig rice with her mother.
She is an amiable, admirably enthusiastic, yet shy host and guide. There’s nothing slick about her and she’s no show-off. In Italy, she marvels at the olive harvest in Tuscany and then laughs a lot but asks tons of pertinent questions while making oil-saturated focaccia with a local man who is a bit wary of the cameras and attention. Nosrat comes across as a pacifist in those food wars that are about pretension, entitlement and hauteur.
Netflix’s other renowned and much praised food-anchored series, Chef’s Table, has won applause for its focus on a handful of chefs as unique, creative individuals. It has its charms, but it’s the kind of escapism that is literally remote from the viewer. The likelihood of the average viewer getting to the featured restaurant in Buenos Aires in Argentina is slim. In a recent interview with The Guardian, Samin Nosrat said, “I think the goal of Chef’s Table is that you are so moved by the story that you want to go and eat that person’s food at their restaurant. But I wanted the takeaway from my show to be that you go and cook the thing.”
That mission is handled mainly through Nosrat’s enthusiasm and charm. She does not present herself as a go-to expert on food of any kind or as a public intellectual on the subject. Instead it’s all about learning a little, understanding the core elements of good food and being brave enough to cook it. Her reason for engaging with food and learning about it is, simply, nourishment.
The episode focusing on Mexico and the acidity of citrus is especially charming and educational. Nosrat finds herself connecting the local cuisine and ingredients to the food of her mother’s native Iran. Much of it is a journey into the local escabeche cooking, in which fish or meat is marinated and cooked in an acidic mixture that uses citrus fruits rather than vinegar. One can see in this episode why Nosrat’s book is already considered a classic – her technique is to educate in a plainspoken manner and always be humble about the knowledge acquired by those who cook in a cathartic way, without the benefit of an education in cooking or, indeed, without the internet.
I was so taken with the episode set in Italy that I plan to watch it again. It took me back there. I’ve been lucky enough to see a lot of the world while writing about soccer. A few years ago I was in Giovinazzo, a little port village just down the road from Bari. After a long day of work, I had a meal in the hotel – pasta and local seafood in a white-wine sauce. Local bread, local wine. Sounds simple, and it was, but glorious. The next morning, I encountered the elderly waiter from the night before as he arrived for work. He shook hands with me and canvassed my opinion on what I had eaten. He listed everything, every ingredient, with a smile.
Samin Nosrat has the same kind of eagerness and devotion. An utterly unfussy sense of pleasure in food, and happy to share.