… but if you do, here's how to use it — and why you don't have to feel like a bougie monster.
I love to watch Samin Nosrat’s face while she eats. Yes, this sounds creepy, but many, many other people do, too — some of the best moments of her hit Netflix show “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat” are those when she goes into paroxysms of happiness, tasting something extraordinary. Her face scrunches up; the frame is filled with her joy. Almost invariably, when she’s capable of speech again, she’ll say, “It’s sooooo good!”
I’ve seen people on social media make fun of her — though not with any real malice — for this. As a food writer, I say it’s the best, most human, completely defensible first reaction to eating something amazing — the moment when the greatness of what’s happening in your mouth shuts down your brain’s higher functions. More refined analysis happens eventually. Give pure delight a break!
This is the woman who launched her storied cooking career by asking for a glass of milk to go with her chocolate soufflé at vaunted Chez Panisse, then returned to beg for a job, any job, and started out vacuuming the dining room. This is the woman who has traveled the world — both before and for her Netflix documentaries — in order to better understand not only its food, but its people and how they relate to it. This is the woman who taught culinary god Michael Pollan how to cook, who writes about food for The New York Times, whose James Beard award-winning book — also called “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat” — amounts to a home-cooking revolution. She’s brought her confidence-raising, basic-building-blocks approach to schools, community centers and more all over the place.
Samin’s also — magically, incredibly — anti-pretentious, entirely enthusiastic and absolutely encouraging, on Netflix and on the page. (I think we have to call her Samin, as everyone she meets and immediately befriends on the show does, and probably everywhere else, too.) Her pairing of extreme culinary expertise with the superpower of total down-to-earth charm is all too rare.
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The joy-by-proxy for those of us watching Samin at home is really good, but it’s not quite sooooo good. So when, in Japan, Samin tastes the artisan soy sauce — aged in century-old barrels by a man who talks to it while it brews, listening to it bubble back at him — and her face scrunches/lights up, we think: Where can I get some?! Then: Wait, how much is this going to cost me? And: Is it actually defensible to spend a bananas amount of money on one bottle of soy sauce?
The good news is, Samin says you don’t need the super-fancy soy sauce. Getting you to drop a ton on ingredients is not at all her end game. “The message is just cook something — cook anything!” she told me by phone the other day. (Yes, she is the best to talk to — she answered my call already laughing, about a Gwyneth Paltrow-approved cleanse she’d tried and was writing about.) Anything that gets us away from our screens and into our kitchens is great, she said.
If you’re able to buy local/organic/seasonal and indulge in pricey imported pantry items, fine, but don’t be judgy about it, Samin said. She’s certainly not. “It’s OK if that’s not what you can do right now — just doing anything is good,” she affirmed with her trademark buoyancy.
If you are going to spring for the soooo good two-year-aged soy sauce, it’ll cost you around $20 for an 18-ounce bottle. Which, when you think about it, is an amount pretty easy to spend on joys more fleeting, like a couple of lunches or a few cups of coffee. And the good news, Samin says, is that because of its richness and intensity, a little goes a long way — as in, you might use a quarter of a teaspoon where a standard-issue soy sauce would require a quarter of a cup. “I don’t use it for everything …” she says. “The places I put it are anywhere I can really taste it” — including on just a best-ever bowl of rice with butter, where a tiny amount gives color and umami to the whole thing. You could also lovingly brush it on otherwise unseasoned chicken over a grill, as the soy-sauce whisperer does on the show.
How about the super-special salt she also tries in Japan? That’s around 20 bucks for a sizable 300-gram baggie. If you’ve seen Samin throw salt — so much salt — into water for pasta or vegetables on the eponymous episode of the show, that’s not this salt. “It’s a sprinkling salt — it’s not a handful,” she says. (She likes Diamond Crystal kosher salt for everyday use, and “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat” contains important information about the different saltiness of different kinds of salt, so that no matter what kind you use, you can know thy salt.) She likes the minerally taste of the harvested-from-seaweed artisanal salt sprinkled on fish or sliced steak. And don’t overlook its potential for highlighting sweetness, lovingly applied on top of cookies or caramels.
Excellent Italian olive oil, like the gorgeous stuff Samin watches being pressed in Liguria, is for sprinkling over a salad or dipping bread into — for everyday use, one brand she recommends is Kirkland Signature organic extra-virgin olive oil. Yes, from Costco. She knows this surprises people. “It’s really good!” she says.
And if you do want to spend some of your hard-earned cash on some of Samin’s top-shelf pantry favorites, you don’t have to feel like a bougie monster. One of the main points of her show — which you might mistake for just food porn — is to highlight small producers from all kinds of cultures who’re preserving ancient, ecologically sound ways of making foodstuffs.
When I asked Samin what she was most excited about right now, she started talking in a rush. You know the part in the “Acid” episode featuring the female harvesters of the Yucatán’s very special Melipona honey? (The episode also explains how all honey is, confoundingly, acidic.) Samin said that someone who’d seen the show had just gotten in touch with her and is working on setting up a fair-trade honey operation with the women beekeepers. She’d been living, she said, “with a stone in the pit of her stomach,” having learned how honey brokers have ripped the women off, trying to find time to figure out how to help them. Now it looks like it’s happening, and that those who have the means to help support them from afar might soon be able to taste the honey.
“Are you kidding?!” Samin practically effervesced. “This is amazing!”
Samin Nosrat, hosted by Bethany Jean Clement, 7:30 p.m. Sunday, March 10; Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; sold out