Netflix has advertised their new food documentary, Salt Fat Acid Heat, for several weeks now, billing it as a delightful tour of the globe to teach their viewers about the vital elements of good food. With vibrant cinematography, a cheery soundtrack and compelling direction by Samin Nosrat, it delivers a unique take on the food documentary a la the late Anthony Bourdain. Part observational and part educational, this four-part series is an enjoyable watch with production value rivaling Chef’s Table.
Samin begins her tour (albeit out of order) on the intricacies of fat, traveling to northern Italy to discover the secrets of such delicacies as red cow parmesan and traditional focaccia. This episode first captures the process of olive oil production straight from the source, complete with funny-looking harvesters and an industrial-size press. Accompanied by the picturesque landscape and the beautiful seaside views, the story being told is truly mesmerizing. Through spurts of rapid Italian, the interviews with locals convey the importance of fat in the quality of the food every chef — professional or amateur —produces. The food made throughout the episode is also produced in the traditional way, often by hand and never using shortcuts. Although I didn’t necessarily appreciate the graphic butchering of a pig, it is nothing if not educational. While fat contributes a lot to a dish’s flavor, the big takeaway was the importance of fat for textural quality. As Samin remarks at a Lidia household, “Thank you with a handful of oil!”
The journey continues on to the wonders of salt as experienced in Japan. From a small seaweed harvest for the collection of hondawara salt to an industrial sea salt factory, the salt industry is near and dear to the heart of every chef. By enhancing the flavors that are already there, salt is often the most vital way to season a dish. A small break to play with the monkeys later and Samin dives into the intricacies of soy sauce and miso. While the episode’s highlight is the wonder of salt in cooking, there is also an emphasis on the power of aging foods and waiting patiently for the greatest flavor payoff. When boiling foods for short periods of time, amateur chefs apparently chronically underseason their water, as Samin demonstrates by proceeding to dump her entire container of salt into the green bean water. This episode is much less visually stimulating than the Italy episode and more full of technical detail, but the attic full of rich wooden barrels and the craggy seaside still made for a pretty scene. The episode culminated in a big dinner party showcasing the different salt forms present in all the dishes Samin made.
Vital for contrast and balance, we next got a lesson in acid from Mexico. Samin’s Iranian background causes her to identify strongly with this flavor profile in particular. She first makes sour orange-marinated turkey in a local woman’s kitchen, explaining the delicate balance between marinating and over-marinating. Through Samin’s dissemination of salsa over bowls of chili and a subsequent spice-induced conniption, I got a nice overview of Mexican cuisine and the vital role of acid in it. Samin tries her hand at making tortillas from scratch, extracted some surprisingly acidic and extremely clear Melipona honey, and buyst fresh chocolate from a farmer’s market. Whether citrus, zest, chocolate, seeds or peppers, each ingredient was given a unique platform and shown to be necessary for creating truly magical dishes.
Samin takes it back home in order to showcase the last element of good cooking: heat. With Chef Amy Dencler, Samin begins the episode by waxing nostalgia about learning to cook. All of the chefs at Chez Panisse cook their food over an open hearth with warm and cool sections to move over as it begins to caramelize. Another valuable lesson is the prioritization of quality staples over expensive food. Accompanied by cheery, comforting music, she roasts chicken and explained the importance of letting meat rest. One refreshing aspect of the entire series is Samin’s ability to banter with her cooking counterparts, creating more of a humanity in the way that the cooking tips are conveyed. With the help of her mom, Samin sets out to make the perfectly crispy Tahdig, a Persian crispy rice concoction wholly dependent on Maillard reactions. The show concludes with a familial scene full of fun and good food, depicting the essence of what good cooking is all about.
Salt Fat Acid Heat is now available on Netflix, a great addition for anyone looking to elevate their cooking skills to an astronomical — and possibly medically unsafe — level.
Maggie Gaus is a freshman in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]