‘Salt Fat Acid Heat’ Breaks the Food‑Travel Show Mold by Putting Samin Nosrat in Charge
At the end of Samin Nosrat’s Salt Fat Acid Heat, she feels like a friend whose house I need to go over to for dinner. Each episode of the four-part Netflix series, ends like this — an intimate dinner party with friends, family, and the local artisans, experts, and nonnas whose dishes were featured. They clink glasses of wine, laugh loudly, pile the table with great-looking food, and it feels like one of those nights where you don’t know where the time has gone, because everyone was having such a great time. It’s like the antithesis to those glossy, Instagramable plates of food made in spotless kitchens, and travel shows that feature dishes so far removed from your reality. Nosrat, and her docuseries, exude warmth, laughter, and culinary joy.
Based on her James Beard-award winning book of the same name, Nosrat’s TV debut has each episode focusing on one part of the four essential elements to making delicious food. She begins with a trip to Italy, to explore “Fat” in all its forms, from olive oil to eggs to meat; Japan to fish seaweed out of the ocean and listen to soy sauce ferment for “Salt”; “Acid” lies in the sour orange and tart honey of Mexico; and “Heat” brings her home to Berkeley, California, and the kitchen of Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse to sear steaks over an open fire.
The show switches gears from travelogue to home cooking seamlessly; the grand, sweeping shots of sunsets over fields in Tuscany or waves crashing onto the beach give way to more intimate spaces, of people’s houses as Nosrat learns the traditional way to make miso, or bends over to show us how temperature gets distributed in an oven. The 38-year-old Iranian-American chef talks about the tastes from her childhood, her Persian background, and intersperses the personal stories with cooking tips like how much salt to add to boiling water (enough for you to make a face when you taste it) or the secrets to cooking well (listen to the sound your food makes). But it’s Nosrat’s expressiveness and personality that makes her so easy to watch, and so relatable. Her love for food and the pleasure she gets from each bite is visible, her smile spreads across her face, her eyes widen and then squeeze shut — she tears up eating Parmesan in Italy. It’s just pure, unbridled joy.
That Nosrat is a woman, and an Iranian-American, within a landscape of TV chefs that are (mostly white) men — from Gordon Ramsay and Action Bronson, to David Chang and the late Anthony Bourdain — doesn’t just tick some politically correct 2018 narrative of who gets to be on TV. Her identity is never politicized, but instead informs the production choices in a way that we just haven’t seen before.
Refreshingly, the show features women, lots and lots of women — friends, grandmas, award-winning chefs, home cooks — who have expertise that somehow doesn’t usually get featured in the ‘boys’ club’ genre of food and travel shows. “It was absolutely intentional that the show shows mostly women, especially older women,” Nosrat has said. “There would be times where the producers would bring me a list of people that was full of men and I’d tell them to go back to the drawing board.” Instead of palling around with male chefs in exotic locations, Nosrat highlights the knowledge and tradition that women bring to the kitchen.
One episode sees her making corn tortillas with Doña Asaria, who handmakes about 250 per day because the machine-made ones just don’t taste as good; another has Nosrat’s own mother teaching her how to make the perfect tahdig rice. The camera zooms in to shoot close-ups of women’s hands as they mold koji and salt, grind basil and olive oil, knead dough, and squeeze oranges; simple, handmade food that your grandmother might make for you.
While the divide between men and women in the culinary world is a big one, with male TV chefs performing high-level critiques and commendations of the food world, while women like Ina Garten or Martha Stewart were relegated to home-cooking shows, Nosrat breaks that divide. Salt Fat Acid Heat is everything that is endearing and progressive about Nosrat’s food ethos — that cooking is for everyone.
In the end, Nosrat makes us feel like a part of her food world, and that’s what makes this show so special. Watching Bourdain slinging back beers in Hanoi with a local restaurateur always felt like this kind of untouchably cool thing — you’d want to be there, but you know you probably never will. Watching Nosrat cook fish with her friend, in a wonderfully cozy apartment (even if it is in Japan) fills you with a kind of wistful nostalgia — it feels like we were always meant to be there.