In an age of food television, when at any given moment Ted Allen is saying “You’ve been chopped,” Bobby Flay is adding Guajillo peppers to a dish, or Guy Fieri is, well, being Guy Fieri, Salt Fat Acid Heat is making its mark as the newest and most distinctive treat culinary television has to offer.
Adapted from chef Samin Nosrat’s cookbook, the four-part Netflix series dedicates an episode apiece to each element in the title: salt, fat, acid, and heat. These, Nosrat says, are the essentials of flavor and good cooking, and she travels to Italy, Japan, Mexico, and back home to California to talk about how they figure into different cuisines.
On its surface, the show sounds like any number of offerings you might already find on the Food Network, Cooking Channel, or Travel Channel, but from the start SFAH reveals that its interest lies not in restaurants and celebrity chefs but rather in a totally different kind of food culture, one centered on the care and cultivation of individual ingredients.
In the first episode, “Fat,” Nosrat visits Italy to learn about the creation of olive oil. The cinematography is lush and romantic as the camera sweeps over the landscape: The grove of olive trees sits between the sea and the mountains of Liguria, which, according to olive oil experts Franco and Paolo Boeri, is part of what distinguishes that oil’s flavor. “This mix of sea, mountains, and woods gives us flavors that are very delicate but also very intense,” says Franco. “You can taste different flavors that tell you about the land. Each oil of Italy contains, land by land, its history,” says Paolo. The sentiment is remarkably poetic, especially for a mundane ingredient most people already have in their cabinets. But the oil is not simply described as a medium for the flavors of a finished dish (though it is that, too); it has a particular personality of its own drawn from where it was born.
There are, of course, other food shows that similarly zoom in on ingredients: Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern made a name for its host by pinpointing unique ingredients from regional cuisines. But that show and others of its ilk approach ingredients with eyebrows raised, where a food’s foreign nature—its “bizarreness,” subjectively framed by the contours of a particular American perspective—is the main focus and appeal. SFAH embraces ingredients as living histories, links to cultural traditions that still continue today.
Culture is at the root of SFAH, but not in the same way it is for other travel food shows like Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, Ugly Delicious, or Taste in Translations; it lacks the political bent of the former and the global compare-and-contrast model of the latter. In SFAH cultural identity is never proclaimed or explained; it simply is, and exists in the food itself, in the ingredients, which tell their stories in a way that isn’t defined by outsider expectations. Though it’s not a political show, this is SFAH’s most political act: exploring and learning about food as tradition and identity in a way that’s celebratory and appreciative without being presumptuous or didactic.
Spice, Paolo Boeri says in that first episode, is one of the three parameters for good olive oil: “If it’s spicy, it’s alive.” In SFAH, every ingredient has its own life and backstory that should be considered before the cooking can even begin. In Episode 2, “Salt,” Nusrat meets fifth-generation soy sauce–maker Yasuo Yamamoto, who talks about the traditional Japanese way of making soy sauce—a rarely used method that takes about 21 months longer to produce than your everyday supermarket bottle.
Yamamoto walks among the giant barrels, kneeling to check on the moromi, or fermenting soybean mixture, and says, “I don’t make the soy sauce. The microorganisms make it. … I check on them every day. And I talk to them. My microorganisms work harder when someone is watching.” The popping noises in the moromi, he says, show that the microorganisms are doing their job. Nosrat leans over one vat to hear the popping and gasps when she does; the camera zooms in as though we too are crouched overhead, watching and listening—and the mixture does in fact bubble and pop, the microorganisms well at work.
This kind of visceral interaction also distinguishes SFAH from its culinary competition: Ingredients must be considered with all of the senses, and the show provides as much of that sensory experience to its viewers as it can. The camera lingers on the ingredients being worked, and while every episode ends at a table with a spread of food, the recipes and meals ultimately feel more like an afterthought, secondary to the flavors and ingredients that brought us to this point.
That isn’t to say, of course, that there are no recipes, or that they don’t matter even in this culinary revolution of a show. It’s adapted from a cookbook after all, so the recipes are all included online, though mostly in the form of approximations Nosrat cooked up herself. The grilled chicken with soy sauce opens with a small dedication, “adapted from Yasuo Yamamoto,” as does the Ligurian focaccia, “adapted from Diego with the help of Josey Baker.” Each recipe is an act of translation, just as SFAH is a show that translates an alternative understanding of food.
In the “Acid” episode, Nosrat meets a Mexican family that cultivates melipona honey, a special variety indigenous to the Yucatán, in the way their Mayan ancestors have for thousands of years. They talk about the bond between the Mayas and the bees, who provided them with honey for medicinal purposes while the Mayas protected and cared for them, a tradition they continue to uphold today. “We clean. We give them water. We watch over them,” says Carlos Escobedo as they show Nosrat the hives. “Like they’re the boss and we’re the workers. We serve them.” The idea of service to ingredients, of makers and chefs as servants to food rather than masters of it, is key. Understanding and respecting the basics—and the traditions that come with them—is how you get to the delicious meal in the end.
Unlike that popular genre of American food shows that joins the travelogue with the recipe book—à la Taste in Translations, Rachael Ray’s Tasty Travels, Ugly Delicious, Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, and Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern—SFAH doesn’t zero in on restaurants or tourist attractions. It doesn’t present a sweeping macro view of foreign cities or countries. It doesn’t host many celebrities or move through its locations from a tourist perspective. And, of course, it doesn’t star a male chef (and definitely not a white male chef) on a food journey.
Nosrat, in all of her effervescence and enthusiasm, spends the series learning about the essentials of food, absolutely brimming with awe every time she discovers something new or takes a messy bite of ragú and pavo en escabeche. Rather than the discovery of a restaurant or a people or a trend, SFAH is about paying attention to food down to its foundational building blocks, honoring its ingredients—with all of their histories and individual personalities—and savoring the results. No wonder the result leaves a good taste in the mouth.