Samin Nosrat Is Making Space At The Table
Because of her food journalism, the food world has been well aware of Samin Nosrat for several years. But she became a household name when two things happened: First, her book Salt, Fat, Acid Heat: Mastering The Art of Good Cooking became a runaway bestseller last year.
The book explored the mysteries of cooking for the home chef, and garnered just about every award a cookbook could get. In the words of Nosrat's mentor, Alice Waters (chef-owner of the legendary Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse,) Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat "not only teaches you how to cook, but captures how it should feel to cook: full of exploration, spontaneity and joy."
As if that weren't enough, Nosrat filmed a four-part docuseries with Netflix last fall, and which was also called Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. In it, she travels to Italy to explore the importance of fat (olive oil! Parmesan!); to Japan to see salt harvested and soy and miso fermented; then to Yucatán, Mexico to see how acid, in the form of sour oranges, enhances dishes; and finally back to California to show us how heat transforms meats and vegetables.
After the Netflix series, Nosrat became so well known it became hard to walk down the street or into her favorite grocery store without being stopped by fans and yes, people with questions. (So many questions!) And sometimes just thanks. She recalled the Iranian father in Oakland who thanked her for speaking to his daughters, who were Iranian and African American. "Thank you for showing them what is possible," he told her.
Nosrat is that rare thing: a woman of color in the upper echelons of the snarky, hyper-competitive food world. Her columns appear regularly in The New York Times, she travels the country lecturing about food and culture and doing cooking demonstrations. She is acutely aware of her unicorn status, and spends a lot of time thinking about how to push wider the door she's managed to open so she won't be the Only One in the public eye.
Recently she was in Los Angeles, and stopped by Shereen Marisol Meraji's home to cook and chat with Shereen and me in the backyard. Since summer's officially started, we asked her about Mast-o Khiar and Salad-e Shirazi, a couple of Persian dishes that work well on hot days. (These came from her New York Times article Samin Nosrat's Ten Essential Persian Recipes — you can get the recipes without having to go behind the paywall until June 12.) Her recipes are as delicious as her laugh, which burbles into conversation often and easily.
Here's an excerpt from our interview. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Code Switch: You were born and grew up in San Diego, the child of parents who immigrated from Iran. A lot of immigrant families, wherever they're from, try to get comfortable in their new country by cooking what they ate in the old one. But American grocery stores are...American. They probably were missing a lot of stuff your mom needed when she first got here, decades ago. Did she have to forage for ingredients? Do you have to now?
Samin Nosrat: My mom would go everywhere she could to find the right thing, but if it didn't turn up, you know, we'd use flour tortillas instead of lavash bread to make the Tahdig. So I think cooking is all about being scrappy, no matter where you're from and where you are. It's using what you've got to make something good. I think immigrants in general are put into a lot more challenging situations. But I think that lead to a lot of really incredible creativity when we went to school.
CS: Did you and your sister bring your lunch?
SN: Yeah. We had PB&J, but we also had these things called kotlets -- they're sort of like little meatloaf patties. And kuku sabzi -- kind of a really herby, green frittata. [My mom] also made a lot of Iranian spaghetti.
CS: Iranian spaghetti?
SN: Yep, we call it espaghetti; it's like an Iranian fantasy of what Italian meat sauce is. It had chopped mushrooms, onions, beef (because there's no pork in Iran) and a ton of tomato sauce. And a ton of dried oregano. And she would cook it and then she would mix it and then she put it back in the pot and make tahdig out of it. So there's like a spaghetti tahdig which is really good. The pasta was absorbing the excess liquid from the sauce and it was super delicious! And for leftovers for school we would put the espaghetti in a pita pocket --double carbs!
CS: So food was one way your mother held onto her culture and passed it on to you. She also spoke Farsi to you, y'all went to Persian school...
SN: On Saturday! While everyone else got to watch cartoons and hang out! But now I'm so grateful for it. I think she did such a good job — I was never ashamed I was Iranian, never embarrassed about it at all. So that was a nice thing. I did feel very different than everyone else in San Diego, though.
CS: Iranian? Persian? Most of us don't know the culture very well, and we don't want to offend by using the wrong word. Or are they different words for the same thing?
SN: I tend to use both words, Persian and Iranian, interchangeably, but not everybody does that. To me, I feel like often we're forced to hide behind the term Persian to decide to create distance between this image of what Iranians are that has been perpetuated in the media, certainly for my entire lifetime, which is one of two things: a terrorist or [the reality show] Shahs of Sunset. There's so much more! But you see one Iranian person and suddenly everyone uses that as the point of reference to know everything about your whole culture.
CS: Talk a little bit about the pressure of identity. You kind of stand out among your food world peers, none of whom look like you.
SN: It's so hard. It's really hard. I mean, I think about trying my best to convey in every word and action that I'm only representing me. But it doesn't matter what I say. You know because people are gonna perceive what they want to perceive.
The example I always use is this joke: True diversity is not when there's the excellent black person, the excellent Iranian chef or whatever. It's when there's as much black and brown and queer mediocrity as there is white mediocrity.
CS: We imagine that when these recipes came out, identified as Ten Essentials, you got a lot of feedback—and clapback—from your fellow Iranians. Maybe you used an ingredient they didn't or you cooked the dish a slightly different way and how dare you? That kind of thing?
SN: Most of the feedback has been positive, but there have been times when they weren't. Like my mom is in one of the episodes of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, and we cooked Persian rice together. It didn't turn out perfectly for many reasons, including television production is hard! My mom was on a schedule and we didn't have time to do it again. So in fact right after we took it out, I said—on camera—"every Iranian lady in the world is going to have something to say about this!" There was one tweet the other day where somebody was like "Ok, she and her mother ruined the Tahdig on the show—what a waste of saffron!"
I blocked him—then I unblocked him and retweeted it with a comment saying, "Call me when you take your immigrant mother on camera and make a perfect tahdig!"
CS: Sometimes when there's only one person from a certain background in a particular space, that pioneering person opens the door for others, so it isn't fused shut again. But some want to shut the door behind them, and be the Only One in the room.
SN: I don't want to be the only one, but there's something special about being the only one, right? I'm the child of immigrants, and there was always a garage filled with food, just in case, and you kept money under the mattress. You were always prepared, because you couldn't trust that you were being taken care of. So that translated into my life into a lot of opportunity hoarding. My first urge when I get asked to do things is, "Oh this is my last shot; this is mine. I'm going to say yes to this, because if you don't ask me, who are you going to get?"
But you know what? I had to calm down and trust that if I say "no" this time, it will come around again. Or another chance will. I'll get another shot, and it actually doesn't harm me at all to help somebody else. I have just gotten so much more out of sharing than I ever have from hoarding.
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