I’m tired of telling people to watch Salt Fat Acid Heat. I don’t usually get into TV shows — I can never find the time, and usually don’t have the attention span or determination. So when I devoured Salt Fat Acid Heat last fall, I was excited to finally have something to share with others a contribution to the recurring conversations about what everyone was streaming and binging. “Have you heard of Salt Fat Acid Heat? It’s a new show on Netflix, it’s a food show based off a cookbook, it’s only four episodes and it’s so good.” They’d nod along, half-interested, then move on to discussing Brooklyn Nine-Nine or whatever. Two weeks later, I’d try to bring it up again, only to be met with confused expressions.
OK, maybe I’m dramatizing this a bit too much. But the point stands: Too few students I know have set aside three hours of their lives to watch the best food show in recent memory. That’s a travesty, especially with the Contemporary Thought Speaker Series bringing host Samin Nosrat to speak this Thursday (in conversation with the Chicago Reader’s adventurous restaurant critic Mike Sula).
Salt Fat Acid Heat shines as a TV show for the same reason it innovated as a cookbook: its simplicity. The cookbook breaks cooking down into four elements that create flavor: the eponymous salt, fat, acid and heat. In the introduction to the book, and later in the show, Nosrat recounts making that realization during her stint at Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. She shared it with one of the chefs. “He smiled at me, as if to say, ‘Duh, everyone knows that,’” Nosrat writes. Chefs, maybe, but regular people? “I’d never heard or read it anywhere, and certainly no one had ever explicitly related the idea to me,” she continues. “Once I understood it, and once it had been confirmed by a professional chef, it seemed inconceivable that no one had ever framed things in this way for people interested in learning how to cook.”
Four parts. Could it be any easier? Put it on a screen: four episodes, 45 minutes apiece, with a mix of travel and recipes to build an understanding of that episode’s element.
It’d be a mistake, though, to confuse the series’ simplicity for shallowness. Salt Fat Acid Heat exists in a totally different world than popular “simplified” cooking shows 30 Minute Meals (and I say this as an unabashed Rachael Ray fan). Its four-episode format just makes it feel like a masterclass rather than an 11-week course – still packed with useful information for beginners and experienced chefs alike. Cooking has been my go-to leisure activity for years and I still took so much away from Salt Fat Acid Heat; I can only imagine what my journey with food would’ve been like if I’d gotten Nosrat’s keys at the very beginning.
The thing is, you don’t even have to cook to enjoy Salt Fat Acid Heat. After all, it’s as much of a travel show as it is a cooking show, calling back to masters of the form like Anthony Bourdain. Each episode, Nosrat visits locals chefs and producers in a country to learn about one of the elements. Traveling with her, you learn about fats like olive oil, cheese and pork in Italy; salts like soy sauce and dashi in Japan; acids like citrus and tomatoes in Mexico; and heat with the hearth at Chez Panisse.
Many critics have already noted the respect and attention Nosrat pays to local experts, many of them women and people of color, as one of the show’s major triumphs. To me, that’s the key factor in building the passion for food that Nosrat shows in every scene of the show. It’d be one thing to break down fat in an Alton Brown-like fashion (another chef that I promise I love), it’s another to go to the source and show us the process of pressing olive oil and turning it into focaccia and pesto. Only one of those leaves me wanting focaccia afterward and truly savoring attention to the olive oil I dip my bread in at a restaurant weeks later.
It’s important to point out that a few of Nosrat’s elements, mainly salt and fat, are often demonized thanks to the proliferation of diet culture. So, it’s all the more critical that Nosrat proves to us that none of these elements are scary, that you can enjoy olive oil. One of my favorite moments in the show is just when Nosrat excitedly tastes some freshly harvested salt in Japan. It’s another display of her passion for food and flavor – she’s undeterred by how OK it is by American standards to taste straight salt, and shows us that we shouldn’t worry, either. After all, it’s flavor.
But as the show stresses, a food experience is best when all four elements work together. I still remember Nosrat explaining her first Thanksgiving dinner in college, when, craving the acidity yogurt provides in Iranian cuisine, she kept piling cranberry sauce onto her plate to balance out the rich fats and salts of the meal. After finishing the show, I couldn’t help but approach meals with Nosrat’s mindset. Where’s the salt? The acid? And it’s made me appreciate my recent food experiences even more, like a salad I had that balanced salt and acid with oranges and goat cheese, or a bread-and-cheese appetizer I had that masterfully layered salt.
Many reviews have already said this, but I’ll repeat it: There’s not a food show out there right now that’s quite like Salt Fat Acid Heat. By being explanatory and exciting at once, and economical at that, it’s a food show that I’d truly recommend to everyone – especially college students, regardless of whether you already enjoy cooking after class, want to make better use of your apartment kitchen or just need something to watch for a few hours when you’re stuck inside thanks to spring showers. But go to Samin Nosrat’s talk on Thursday too – and if my incessant rambling hasn’t convinced you to watch the show by now, I can guarantee that she will.