Linda Burgess reviews the biggest-selling book at the New Zealand Festival in Wellington in the weekend – Salt Fat Acid Heat, a cookbook like no other.
At one of Samin Nosrat’s two sessions at the New Zealand Festival’s writers and readers festival in Wellington last weekend, Nosrat referred to herself as a stalker. This, she explained, was how she got artist Wendy MacNaughton to illustrate Salt Fat Acid Heat. I suspect that, like me, there were many other members of the audience who were already planning to become stalkers ourselves. For a start, Nosrat was so endearing. Plump, generous, garrulous, beaming inclusively at panel mates Martin Bosley and Annabel Langbein, she’s the new best friend we’ve always wanted.
And on top of this, she’s subversive. “Why didn’t you mention sugar?” asked an audience member (Wellington audiences always have the best questions.) Nosrat, her permanent grin unfaltering, said with salt and fat she’d already alienated so many experts that she thought that was enough. She then launched into all the natural sugars that fresh food provides – corn, for example, cooked the moment it’s picked. The sloshing sound in the room was every mouth watering to its limits.
Before Salt Fat Acid Heat I was of the opinion that given I already have a good stash of the usuals – Ottolenghi, Slater, Fearnley Whittingstall, Langbein, Stein, even Nigella, Mary Berry and Jamie – I really didn’t need another cookbook. Not when the internet is so useful. I wasn’t far into Salt Fat Acid Heat before I knew that I was reading something different. Nosrat is no Nigella, seductively stirring some tasty morsels. She’s an unfalteringly curious concocter; she’s actually a scientist, minus the sandals.
This book is clearly for those who really enjoy cooking, and there are quite a lot of us out there. But it’s not just for those who want to cook smart dinner parties. She describes how to scramble eggs – useful if you’re applying for a job in a good café, where, according to judges of those endless TV cooking competitions, how you scramble an egg can be used to judge you as a chef.
This is how Nosrat scrambles an egg: “Crack four eggs into a bowl and season them with salt and a few drops of lemon juice, whisking thoroughly to break them up. Gently melt a little butter in a saucepan over the lowest possible heat and pour in the eggs. Continue to stir with a whisk or a fork while adding 4 or more tablespoons of butter in thumb-sized pieces, letting each be absorbed before you add the next. Never stop stirring, and be patient. It’ll take several minutes for the eggs to come together. When they do, pull them from the stove in anticipation of the cooking that will continue due to residual heat. Serve with – what else? – buttered toast.”
Lemon? No milk? I made these last night. Rich…but yum. The night before I made her “garlicky green beans” (simple and wonderful, and only a little bit different from what I usually do, but oh, the difference) and “Persian-ish rice” (time-consuming in a risotto-ish way but worth every bit of the effort).
The book is divided into four, as the title indicates. That much-maligned ingredient, salt, has its best ally yet. I do hope that in the next few weeks some triumphant article doesn’t show a cross-section of her stiffened arteries. I do have to say that I was a little less generous than she was in the salting of the rice (6 tablespoons did sound somewhat excessive; I went as far as I dared) but I did pause to admire her instructions – “the water should taste saltier than the saltiest sea water you’ve ever tasted.” Mine did. She salts a chicken – the word “thoroughly” is unnecessary – the day before she roasts it. She says it makes all the difference to succulence. Well, I believe her.
Her tone is chatty. She’s chatty. At the festival, her moderator Marianne Elliot, who handled the panel of three chefs with aplomb, did a magnificent job of the solo act with a crisp introduction, a gentle push, then Nosrat was like a balloon whizzing round the room in no danger whatsoever of deflating. The book does not have the normal layout, managing successfully to incorporate a touch of memoir, comment, information and actual recipes in a fairly loose format. This tone means that at any stage you can go back into this book and just enjoy any bit of it. A glance at any page will mean you’ve learnt something new. Did you know what difference a capful of vinegar makes to a soup? You do now. You might just want to look at the stalked illustrator’s pictures. They’re not photos, because Nosrat knows that food photos lie. Instead they’re drawings, slightly reminiscent of those found in marginally joyless wholefood cookbooks like Laurel’s Kitchen that many of us were so mad on in the 70s. But they’re so beautiful I want to paper my kitchen with them.
I don’t think it’s an introductory manual; it’s for people who love cooking and want to know more about how and why certain things work. Though it could well act as inspiration for those at the beginning of learning to cook. Nosrat just wants people to get away from processed foods and cook fresh – and tasty – at home, though she’s aware how extremely difficult this can be for a large percentage of the population.
At nearly 500 pages Salt Fat Acid Heat is solid; but it’s just so interesting. I’m curious to know how often I’ll refer to it over the coming months: I think, often. Whenever I want to feel celebratory.
“I’m in the health industry,” one of the final questions began, at Nosrat’s New Zealand Festival session. The room erupted in a mass murmur of sympathy. “I’m always telling people what not to eat. So I just want to say…thanks.” Hear hear.
Salt Fat Acid Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking by Samin Nosrat (Canongate, $55) is available at Unity Books.