The American-born daughter of Iranian parents, Samin Nosrat, describes the food and flavours which were a central part of her life as she was growing up enjoying her mother’s Persian cooking. She was studying English at college when her work in the kitchen at Chez Panisse changed her career plans and she embarked on journeys in Europe and Asia to further develop her skills.
Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is not your usual cookbook as it describes the importance of the elements in the title and equips you with the knowledge to cook anything better, not just the recipes at the end. Throughout the book the author emphasises the connections and interactions between the elements in the title. In each section she provides some basic chemical information, insight into how she came to realise the importance of the ingredient/element and describes its impacts on the ultimate taste and flavour of what is being cooked.
This is Nosrat’s first book and she writes in an approachable, amusing style which is enhanced by great illustrations and diagrams from Wendy MacNaughton. The friendly style and quips about her own kitchen disasters will appeal to budding chefs who need a confidence-boost as the author provides information which may help lessen the ‘error’ part of the trial and error of cooking.
Salt is one of the essentials of life and the book describes some of the myriad varieties that are now available. It is one of the five tastes we can perceive with the others being sour, bitter, sweet and umami – a Japanese word meaning inherent savouriness. We learn that salt not only brings out flavour but also enhances sweetness while toning down any perceived bitterness. The author describes an early experience of cooking a large pot of polenta when the chef said it needed more salt and then added three palmfuls. As I don’t usually cook with salt, I have problems believing the amount of salt provided ‘a satisfying zing! with each mouthful’ rather than spoiling the dish (page 19) but that’s just me. I have learned about salting meat for at least a few hours, if not the day before, to enhance the taste, because the time it’s being seasoned is a more important factor in developing flavour than the amount of salt used.
Fresh Ginger and Molasses Cake
My test recipe was the Fresh Ginger and Molasses Cake on page 412 as I wanted to try a cake using oil, rather than butter, as the author promised a more moist result. It is certainly easier to make as there is no creaming of the butter and sugar, rather all the wet ingredients are whisked together and then added to the sifted dry ingredients. The recipe noted it made great cupcakes and, as mine were baking, the kitchen was filled with the heady aroma of ginger and spices, so appropriate for the festive season. The result was a delicious, well-risen cup cake with the promised moist texture and the warmth of ginger – definitely one I’ll make again.
I was surprised when I saw another reviewer had said she felt intimidated by the book, believing the author promoted cooking perfection, which she felt was out of her reach. I think she’d missed the point of the book – it’s not about perfection but rather enhancing what you already know and are doing in the kitchen by being more aware of some of the science and interactions between these four vital elements. My short review can’t do justice to the 460 plus pages of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat but I would certainly recommend it to anyone with an interest in discovering more about combining ingredients, flavours and cooking in general.
Reviewed by Jan Kershaw
Rating out of 10: 9
Distributed by: Allen & Unwin
Release Date: October 2017
RRP: $49.99 hardcover