DossierFood & Wine

Drop Acid — Into Your Gravy!

By Julissa James

Samin Nosrat by Bijou Karman.

Samin Nosrat loves acid. It’s a pillar of her cooking philosophy, book and Netflix documentary series, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. It’s the baseline of her Persian palate, which has been shaped by the tang of yogurt, the tart of pomegranate and the fresh squeeze of lime. It’s also, according to Nosrat, the main ingredient missing from most traditional Thanksgiving spreads.

Growing up in an immigrant household, Nosrat didn’t attend an American Thanksgiving dinner until she was a student at UC Berkeley in the 1990s. She reveled in the richness of the turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes, but found herself spooning cranberry sauce on every bite just to break up the heaviness of it all. Let’s be real: Cranberry sauce — while eliciting strong opinions on the subject of canned versus homemade — can only do so much.

This was way before she became Samin Nosrat: famous chef, writer, host and a down-to-earth and beloved personality. But it was a defining lesson for her in the transformative powers of acid, which she’s championed for two decades in the food world — especially in the last three years, as her star has risen faster than even our most successful sourdough attempts in quarantine.

So charming it actually hurts: Was it the animated way her eyes grew wide when biting into a cone of gelato in Italy, or how every muscle on her face contracted when trying that sour orange in Mexico? Maybe it was the time she was brought to tears by eating aged red cow Parmesan. It’s hard to pinpoint what made the world fall in love with her on Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, but we just did.

Cutting teeth at Chez Panisse: It was Nosrat’s sophomore year studying English at Cal, and she was in love with a Bay Area foodie whose dream it was to eat at Alice Waters’ famed Berkeley restaurant. After eight months of saving pennies, the time came for a meal at Chez Panisse. The experience left Nosrat stunned, and shortly after her visit, she hand-delivered a letter asking for a job as a busser. She started the next day. The stars aligned, Nosrat now says of her luck. She’d soon start volunteering in the kitchen, before becoming an unpaid intern and eventually getting hired for a low-level cook’s position that paid $10 an hour.

She wears a chef’s hat, among others: Most recently as a New York Times Magazine Eat columnist, Nosrat has highlighted recipes including Gullah Geechee okra soup and a South Asian savory tapioca dish called sabudana khichdi. At the start of quarantine, she created a podcast called Home Cooking with her friend, the musician and Song Exploder creator Hrishikesh Hirway. They help listeners figure out what to cook, and interview big names like Queer Eye’s Antoni Porowski, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and Bay Area comedian W. Kamau Bell. Nosrat is also in the process of writing a second cookbook, which will once again be illustrated by the Bay Area artist Wendy MacNaughton.

Years in Italy: Nosrat’s favorite episode of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is “Fat,” filmed in the place she spent two formative years in her 20s: Italy. Nosrat learned to make a rich ragu from Florentine chef Benedetta Vitali and sharpened her skills with butcher Dario Cecchini inTuscany. She also lived in the northwest region of Piedmont. “I wanted to learn about —and eat — all of my favorite dishes right at the source,” she has said of the experience.

Pulling up seats at the table: Nosrat has long been dedicated to fostering inclusion, diversity and respect in the food scene. She knows what it’s like to feel “other,” starting with her upbringing as a child of Iranian immigrants in a white middle-class suburb of San Diego. Over summer, Nosrat shared the work of over 50 Black chefs, writers, thinkers and business owners to her nearly 600,000 Instagram followers. She’s been critical of food shows that fetishize white male chef culture, along with publicly recognizing that many chefs who look like her haven’t gotten the opportunities she has. “I’m literally the only brown person ever who’s been given the privilege of talking about general cooking,” she told Bon Appétit last year. 

Radical honesty: Nosrat exudes an earnest joy that’s infectious. But she hasn’t shied away from speaking about her yearslong battle with depression. “Seven or eight years ago, I started taking antidepressants, which was a huge, huge positive change,” she told the New Yorker. “There was a dark, terrible knot in my stomach that I had always known, a knot I was never not aware of, that was suddenly, within days of taking the medicine, not there anymore.”

Zing!: In the podcast I Think You’re Interesting, Nosrat shares tips for incorporating acid into Thanksgiving staples. For stuffing, she notes, “I often will make a little bit of ground-up sausage meat with some white wine in there. I’ll soak prunes or any dried fruit, which is a little bit acidic, in white wine, which adds a little bomb of acidity. I’ll use sourdough bread, which is naturally sour.” For mashed potatoes, she’ll add creme fraiche or sour cream instead of cream and butter. But Nosrat believes the most important component of any meal is community. “For me, cooking has never been about the food,” she has said. “It’s about what happens at the table.”

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