Samin Nosrat on Persian Food & the "Authenticity Trap"
Words by Sofia Levin
Image by Smeeta Mahanti
“I get a lot of criticism”, are not the words you expect to hear from Netflix's favourite food show host, best-selling cookbook author and New York Times columnist, Samin Nosrat.
The Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat star is apologising before she even says hello. It’s 5pm in Oakland and 10am in Melbourne when Zoom tells me she's entered the waiting room.
"I'm sorry!" Samin says as soon as the audio connects.
Her computer doesn’t have video, she explains, but throughout the interview there’s as much laughter, passion and angst communicated through her voice as there is delight in her widened eyes as she licks an ice cream during the introduction of her show. During lockdown I couldn’t check my Instagram without seeing someone pre-emptively posting about her live cook-a-long of The Big Lasagna, and though talk of cooking is scattered liberally throughout our conversation, we're here to talk about Persian food.
Google “Samin Nosrat” and the search engine will tell you that people also ask: "How do you pronounce Samin Nosrat?", "What ethnicity is Samin Nosrat?" and “How old is Samin Nosrat?” Hrishikesh Hirway, her co-host on the Home Cooking podcast, teases her when she bemoans at yet another pun, telling her she’s “sah mean” – which is how you say her name.
Born in 1979 in California, a few years after her parents emigrated from Iran, Samin is an ambassador for Iranian food and culture, whether she’s comfortable with it or not. Over 45 minutes she earnestly answers every question, hushing her dog, Fava, in between. We speak about condiments, tattoos, growing up in America, our mums, her newest book, the “authenticity trap”, social media in the time of Coronavirus and how the flavours and balance in Iranian food unknowingly laid the foundations for her career.
Download and listen to a 25-minute audio here, or read on for the interview, condensed and edited for clarity.
Right now my favourite condiment is chilli crisp. Traditionally I think there’s a classic one that’s available here in the States…
Does it have a picture of an angry aunty on the front?
I’m obsessed with that!
There’s a renaissance of chilli crisp now in the States, so there are a whole bunch of people making them. There’s one called Fly by Jing, where there’s this young woman from Sichuan and she’s making them, so I have many chilli crisps on my little condiment platter.
Are you familiar with this? (Holds up jar of Vegemite)
I know what it is, I know what it tastes like – I don’t know if that counts as being familiar! I don’t know if I can get into the Vegemite-on-toast thing, but I really appreciate that it is basically a pure umami punch, so what I love about it is it’s an ingredient that can heighten the taste of other stuff.
Do you have a tattoo? The reason I ask is because I ended up on your Pinterest page randomly…
Oh, and I have a whole thing of tattoos! I don’t have a tattoo; I’ve always sort of wanted one. I go back and forth on the commitment. I struggle with my relationship with my body so the idea of putting something on there – I don’t know. But Wendy MacNaughton, the wonderful illustrator and my friend who illustrated my book, she has a lot of tattoos… it took me so long to write the book and it was this journey we were both on for a long time, so we talked about getting a tattoo when it was done and what that would be. At one point I even applied to a tattoo artist for whom you must apply for a slot, and was rejected. I understand; she has boundaries, unlike me, so that’s cool. I still don’t have one but I think if I got one it would be a bean, a fava bean…
And when you say a fava bean you mean an actual fava bean, not a picture of your dog?
Not my dog, no that’s insane.
There are a lot of people who would disagree with you. I currently have this on my lap right now…
Oh my god, so fluffy! Who is that?
This is Jinkee. She also has an Instagram account. I am also a crazy dog lady.
That is the CUTEST.
Do you cook much Iranian or Persian food, and which term do you prefer?
I use the terms very interchangeably, which a lot of people don’t. I probably say more that I’m Iranian, but the food is Persian. I do not cook it that much because it is so labour intensive and time-consuming and in fact at some point my grandmother said Persian food was invented to keep women in the kitchen… I’ve never said this, but I so associate Persian food with group eating, like a gathering of people around a table to eat the rice or the stew that’s simmered for many hours and I live by myself, so it’s just too much work for me, my own self and I. There’s Persian-ish elements to things that I do, but I would say maybe twice a year, I go all out.
What was in your lunchbox at school – did you have Persian food or was it Americanised?
My mum is a great cook. She was obsessed with health food; we bought all of groceries at the health food store, and in large part because those organic vegetables tasted the closest to what she remembered in Iran, and in part because she was just a health food freak. There was a dish we had called kotlet, which are kind of like these little meatloaf patties, and so I would get kotlet sandwiches, which is probably a typical thing an Iranian kid would get for lunch, but she wouldn’t give me any rice or stew because there was no way to heat it up. We have an egg and chicken salad called salad Olivier, so I would have that.
Which I think is Russian influence…
Yeah, Russian, exactly right, it’s Russian in origin.
Which is so interesting in itself…
Totally, I mean, all of that stuff you grow up thinking it’s your thing and then Google happened, right? There’s a whole sort of period of time, I’m not sure it can be called proper colonisation, but there was a large French influence in Iran, so there’s a very weird Francophilia. There are a lot of French words in Farsi. Do you speak Farsi?
I don’t speak anything, I’m one of those people who are in awe watching your show and thinking, there she is speaking Spanish in Mexico and Italian in Italy.
No, no, no. There was a lot of generous editing, particularly in the Mexico episode.
That makes me feel about one per cent better, thank you.
I’d say maybe one third of my lunches were Persian and then I also had things like peanut butter, but the natural kind where you have to stir it, and low-sugar jelly on very dense wheat bread. She also made a really delicious turkey sandwich… or if we had pasta with meat sauce, the next day she would put the leftover pasta in a pita pocket and we’d have a spaghetti sandwich.
Were other kids kind or did you want to get out the dense peanut butter sandwich?
It changed over time but I remember as a young kid in kindergarten I got made fun of once when I brought the kotlet to school because it was just this brown, unidentifiable thing and five year olds like to call stuff “poo-poo”.
The ultimate insult.
The ultimate insult. I definitely remember that, and kind of being upset, but my thing tasted really good so it wasn’t that big of a deal. And then I think over the course of high school, as I got older, I don’t remember people being cruel about it at all, and also by then the lunches started to look like other people’s lunches.
This isn’t Persian, it’s Middle Eastern but I remember very clearly in high school that this friend of mine who was white started bringing hummus and carrot sticks and cucumber to school for lunch, and that was this extremely exotic, cutting-edge thing, and I was like, I’ve been eating hummus my whole life!
How would you characterise Iranian food? Does it stand out from the other Middle Eastern cuisines?
I think of it as rice-based, whereas a lot of the other cuisines I don’t think of as rice-based. I do think of it as an extremely elegant cuisine, and that’s not necessarily in contrast with the other cuisines. I think that also might be why it has not made its way to the west, because there’s so much work involved, and sort of nuance to making a plate of Persian food. That’s a really complicated thing to try to translate. Most of my favourite dishes are dishes that are typically made in the home and not in the restaurants. So people who have made their way to an Iranian restaurant, they’ve probably had rice and kebab and not many stews or other things that really typically only happen at home in Iran.
The Iranian palate and kitchen philosophy is very obsessed with balancing a plate and a meal in flavour, and so for everything sweet there’s something sour, for everything crunchy there’s something creamy, for everything hot, there’s something cold, and so there’s kind of a beautiful theory in Persian food that I don’t necessarily always see on other plates from other cultures, and that might just be I’m not that familiar with them.
It sounds like you were raised on that balance, which then led to your entire career.
Which then led to my book, yeah. I definitely think there’s a way looking back I can recognise it, I don’t know that I could have identified it at the time, but absolutely, once I understood the elements of cooing in the big picture, I was able to apply them to our cooking.
Did you ever consider filming in Iran?
We actually were a hair’s breadth away from going to Iran and at the very last second we had to cancel because there was a shift politically that made it impossible to go. That was a big reason why I wanted my mum to come, because I still wanted to show part of my Iranian-ness and it’s just such an important portrayal that I didn’t want to push to go. I didn’t want my crew to be uncomfortable, I didn’t want to rush, so I felt like that’s something I’ll do probably, hopefully at some point in the future in my career, because it just feels like a very high-stakes thing to get right.
Where do you go from – I always get the order wrong – Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat – is that right?
Yeah that’s it, it’s a little confusing because they switched the order for Netflix.
So I’m not losing my mind, that’s great.
It’s a little confusing for people, understandably. So where do I go next?
Yeah, what do you do: Pepper, Saccharine, Muscle, Cold?
There are so many people making really great recipes, making individual books about cuisines around the world, and what I’m good at is distilling the big picture into neat, tidy information that’s digestible for people, that can hopefully then spark their curiosity so they can do the deep dive into the Burma cookbook. It took me a while, a long time actually, to sort of sit with it and figure out what I wanted to do and how I wanted to organise stuff. I realised that there’s another part of professional cooking that doesn’t actually get translated for home cooks, and that’s deciding what to cook. Whereas Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is about translating how professional cooks cook, whereas my next book will be about translating how professional cooks decide what to cook.
Whether or not you know it, there is always an invisible set of constraints that really determine what it is that you should be cooking. Pre-Coronavirus, typically that constraint on a person’s life is time. On a Monday through Friday basis, it’s what do I have time to make, what can I get on the table before the kids lose their minds, what can I prep in the morning before I go to work, what can I make that means I wont have to eat dinner at 10pm? And so that might mean buying food that’s partially prepared, or maybe getting more expensive cuts of meat that cook more quickly, or choosing not to cook beans from scratch. This has been something I have been thinking about for a long time, and now that we are all simultaneously at home, it’s kind of like our main constraint has shifted from time to ingredients and the availability of what we can get our hands on.
Jumping back to the Heat episode with your mum for a moment. I asked my mother recently what she thinks the most important lesson is that she’s taught me about food. She joked that it was to eat slowly, and then said it was to try everything at least once. What’s the most important food lesson your mother has taught you?
Oh, that’s nice! I think probably the most fundamental thing I’ve learnt from my mum is to find the best ingredients. She has always been restless and will cross town, will go to another city, for the best loaf of bread; will go to three different places to find the freshes cilantro; will go to two different places to get the two kinds of feta cheese that my brothers like. That sort of willingness to travel for taste and pursue the best flavour is definitely what defines the way that I cook.
Many years later I came to Chez Panisse in Berkley, which is sometimes criticised for its obsession with shopping and the quality of your ingredients, and it took me a long time into my cooking career to realise that’s what my mum was doing, she was after taste. She was always trying to cook back toward her childhood, cook back towards the taste of Iran; those are the things she idealises. The greatest compliment a tangerine or piece of lamb could get from my mum or anyone in my family was, “this tastes like Iran”. One time when I brought an entire suitcase of fava beans and citrus fruit from our favourite farm at Chez Panisse, I brought them home for my family, and when my mum and my aunts and my grandmothers were eating the fruit they just kept saying, “wow, this taste like Iran", and that was when it really clicked for me: for them, what tastes like Iran is the best, and for us at the restaurant, the highest compliment is just, “this tastes the best”.
You’ve obviously travelled extensively around the world eating, how do you feel coming from a Persian background about when people use the word “authentic” to describe dishes, whether that’s within their own country or abroad?
I think the word authentic is really tricky. I have to always catch my own self from using it, too; it’s a word I prefer not to use now, because it’s a trap. This isn’t food related, this is another example more with crafts, and I’m the culprit, so I think this will explain a lot of how I feel. In December I went to Oaxaca in Mexico… with my best friend who’s an art historian and who also used to cook with me. We went to a house of a rug maker and my friend was like, “wow, this is really wild, there are so many rugs here in this very particular type of neutral palette and this wasn’t here last time...” and I was like, oh yeah, that’s the Instagram palette – that’s the colour that a certain type of Instagram influencer or consumer form urban centres in California and New York really is drawn towards… and also that thing is now globalised because of things like Instagram.
There’s an amazing article called Airspace all about how this similar aesthetic appears over and over again and that that’s the thing that drives design and consumerism and that we’re losing the “authentic” culture and tastes of a place. So I was really pissed. I felt like I was getting ripped off. I was like, this is a mess, white people have ruined Oaxacan culture, and now because these people depend so much on hipster money, they are making the things that hipsters will buy instead of the things they have made since the beginning of time, and hipsters have ruined Oaxaca.
Then we went and hung out with another one of my friends, Niki Nakazawa, who’s lived in Mexico now for I think 12 years… she’s taught me so much about culture and cultural appropriation and how to defend and protect traditions and people, and not take advantage of them. Niki really set me straight when I gave her this rant. She said, “for you to come here and expect these weavers and these artisans to not evolve is its own form of colonialism, because then you’re like, oh, I only appreciate you for ‘ye olde way’ of doing something. The idea that there’s no influence or evolution or change is your own form of touristic colonialism,” and I was like, oh god you’re totally right.
I don’t think any Iranian person would think that what I do is authentic, in fact I get a lot of criticism for it, which I find to be really short-sighted and, honestly, another sort of symptom of colonialism and racism. In my lifetime Iranians and Iranian culture have only been villainised in this country, so Iranians really hold on very dearly for any positive portrayal of any part of our culture. It means so much to them, and I mean so much to them, and everything I do means so much to them, and that’s why they’re extra critical of me when it doesn’t accurately reflect their own thing. What they don’t understand is they’re just perpetuating racism back at me instead of turning it back out toward the people who don’t allow us to have a diversity of representation.
So it’s a complicated thing. Authentic-ness is a really tricky thing, travelling in search of it is really, really tricky. Sure, I want to travel around the world and taste the version of the dishes in the places, and then come home and cook toward that, because I want to have historical, geographical, traditional context. I want to understand why people use fish sauce in a certain way, why someone in southern Italy chooses to use tomato paste instead of tomato sauce. I want to know why those choices are made so when I’m home, I can make choices in context, too. But authenticity – I don’t think it exists. I think everything is constantly in flux.
I promised myself I wouldn’t mention lasagne because you’re probably sick of it…
It’s okay, you can mention it!
Having all those people communicate and have this virtual dinner party with you – I see you as a real advocate for spending time with people in the kitchen and around the table, but I’m curious to know how you balance the easiest way to get your messages out, which is social media, versus trying to encourage that face-to-face connection.
I’m completely tortured. I don’t have a good or satisfying answer to this because I live under the fascist grip of Instagram. I have a really tortured relationship to it… I do feel really trapped sometimes, but since the beginning, even before social media when I was blogging, I really felt like the message I wanted to get out was, I’m going to use this tool to get you off this tool. And so that’s what I feel is important. And what’s interesting now is it’s all we have, there isn’t a way to be together without it. I don’t know, was my weird dinner party on Instagram Live a success? Depends what a success is for you. I feel like I got people’s minds off really hard stuff for a day. I got them in the kitchen cooking with their kids, I got people out of their heads and into their bodies… and I feel pretty good about that. It seemed like it lifted spirits and gave everyone a shared project, which is something nice. Did it feel as good as it does when I get to be in a room with people? No.
Do you know how many people participated?
When I logged out of the Instagram Live thing it was about 30,000 people.
That’s a hell of a big dinner party. Samin, thank you so much… I probably speak on behalf of thousands and thousands of other people when I say you’ve made this time really enjoyable.
Oh, thank you so much, that’s awesome.
Wishing you a very pleasant evening. Go and cuddle your dog.
Oh yeah, we’ve been cuddling all day.
Thank you so much, Samin.
Take care, bye Sofia.
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