"I wish I was a person who said, 'I’ll start the day off with a chia pudding. And some broccoli or whatever.' But it just never ends up being that virtuous."
Samin Nosrat’s widely lauded book Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat came out in April of this year. It’s a new take (with visually stunning watercolors by artist Wendy MacNaughton) on cooking from the Chez Panisse alum and New York Times Magazine contributor. From the vaunted birthplace of California cuisine, Nosrat learned how these four key pieces add up in cooking, and her book offers explanations and tips that home cooks can use. It’s accessible and a delight to read since it teaches without preaching. I caught up with Nosrat over the phone to talk about her book tour, TV series, and love of tiny breakfast.
Extra Crispy: Where are you now? What did you have for breakfast?
Samin Nosrat: I’m in New York. I woke up late and had to come meet a friend at Whole Foods. He had a bacon, egg, cheese. I grabbed a bacon-egg, but there’s no cheese.
How is the book tour going?
It’s been nonstop. The response couldn’t be any more positive or overwhelming; it’s just incredible. But I’m exhausted and juggling. I’m a mental mess. I’m on deadline now. My editor [for the New York Times Magazine] said, “You know you have a piece due next Friday, where’s my draft?”
What do you usually eat for breakfast on tour? How has breakfast on the road been?
Two years ago, I realized I have Hashimoto's hypothyroiditis. I’ve been diagnosed with a hyper thyroid for ten years. Two years ago, I had a physical and mental breakdown. I’m sure some of it was related to stress and my book but part of it was also my body was so worn down. I hit this wall and I got tired and I didn’t know what was up. So, I saw an endocrinologist. I was having all this testing done. And then I went to an acupuncturist and the first thing she said was, “Let’s stop eating sugar, wheat, dairy and caffeine.”I was like, “Kill me now. Yeah.”
I was really exhausted and had this rash for six months. Nobody knew what it was. When I stopped eating wheat, it went away. It was really bananas because I woke up thinking, Just don’t give me a dairy allergy and a wheat allergy. I don’t have those, but for the past couple of years I’ve really tried to monitor my wheat intake and as much as I can my dairy intake. I don’t really drink milk but I grew up eating yogurt every day and it’s hard for me to give that up. I like half and half in my coffee.
I limit both my wheat and dairy and when I’m on the road I slip up a lot more, hence my bacon-egg-cheese this morning. My solution is that I carry lots of snacks with me at all times so that I have lots of nutty seedy things with me. That has often helped. Or I just have peanut butter in the morning. There is no method to the madness.
At home I try to eat breakfast and my ideal is to have something green in there, whether it’s yesterday’s broccoli, salad, or whatever. Then I’ve already made a positive step for the day.
On the road, do you pack your own salt, vinegar, oil, etc.?
A lot of people have given me little tins of Maldon salt or Jacobsen’s salt. I’ve been known to carry a lemon and carry some salt with me, but I haven’t done it much on this tour because I have learned the benefits of traveling light. It’s very funny:this whole time, when my whole message is about food and taking care of one’s self, yet I’m sort of in survival mode. So, it’s not the most ideal.
I had a break to be home for almost a month, which was good because I could get back into my habits. I have herbs and greens in the garden. I wake up and makes eggs with kale. To me, being at home is when I can stick to the routines, cook in batches, and cook vegetables for the next day.
I haven’t figured out the best ways to do it on the road. Partly because when I’m in New York, I’m just overscheduled, so it’s like, ‘I’m just going to go on to the next thing.” Here [in New York], we’ve been in pre-production for my show and we’ve had a lot of our meetings in restaurants. So, I just order for everyone a ton of vegetables.
The other day, six of us had a huge dinner at Café Altro Paradiso, one of Ignacio Mattos’s restaurant. It was so delicious and comical: We were super-stuffed and forgot we had ordered this 45-ounce steak. It was like the Flintstones. Then the steak came, and we ate everything.
At Buvette, they steam the eggs in the espresso machine, and they have little toast and stuff. It’s a munchkin restaurant—everything’s teeny tiny. All the pastries are tiny, the plates are tiny. Everything is tiny. That’s my place for breakfast.
What are the two most interesting breakfasts you've ever eaten?
When I was 14, I went to Iran for the first time. My grandparents lived on the north coast, by the Caspian Sea. Every day my grandpa would get up, and he knew I loved barbari bread. The thing its closest to is focaccia. He would get up early every morning and go buy me fresh barbari bread from the baker. So, I would sit and have breakfast with him, with feta cheese and sweet, sweet black tea. I remember the tenderness of this man who I could barely speak with. I speak some Farsi but he spoke no English. I wasn’t deeply conversational with him, but there was a tenderness of him going every morning to get that bread for me every morning. That was wonderful.
The next one was when we were trying to sell my book to publishers. My agent sent the proposal out, and there were overwhelming positive reactions. She told me I had to be in New York on Monday morning. I took a redeye on Sunday, and I had never taken a redeye before. I was so excited for these fifteen meetings and landed at 6 or 7 a.m. I rushed to get to my friends’ house to take a shower and then had to go meet my agent at Haven’s Kitchen, which is a little fancy bakery/coffee shop/cooking school place. I don’t even remember what we had but I know I had tea and I was just waiting for her and she showed up. I was super nervous. I think the response to the proposal had been so amazing and this was only the second time I had seen her in person. We were both so giddy and jumping up and down and hugging. It started this crazy week when people were gushing praise for the book. This was the first moment of my new stage in my life or something.
Did you cry at that breakfast?
I don’t think so. I cried at the end of that week because I had no idea what I was in for yet. My whole life, it’s been me trying to prove myself to people and explain to people what I’m doing. It took me a few meetings to realize what was happening. No one had articulated for me that the role was reversed going into the meetings—and these guys were trying to impress me.
I was a crazy awkward brown kid going into these board rooms. It was amazing and a big part of it was afterward when I went home, I realized that in every room with executives and publishers and editors, every single person pronounced my name right. Which meant that they practiced. That's crazy, because no one ever pronounces my name right. I asked my agent, “Did they ask you how to pronounce my name before I came there?”
And she said, “Yeah, they did.”
I had never been quote unquote important for someone to do that before. I thought, Whoa, this is bananas.
What did you eat for breakfast when you worked at Chez Panisse?
It was in different stages. For a long time, I did a job called garde manger that started at 6 a.m. I was housesitting to save money, and the commute was an hour, so I’d get up at 4:30 and I never had time to eat. I would make tea when I got to work. Part of the job was going in the walk-in to take inventory. They’re cold in there, it’s supposed to be cold. We’d wrap ourselves with our sweatshirts and I would go in with my clipboard and steaming cup of tea. My body was a little bit slow to wake up so I wouldn’t eat anything. Slowly as people came in there would be leftovers. Pastry people would come in and put out pastries.
By royal decree, we were never allowed to use things from the day before. Alice [Waters] did not want us to use day-old cookies. We also could never use day-old cake, and everything was fresh made in the morning. They would put out all the cookies and cake. Another one of the chefs taught me one of her favorite things to do. This is the grossest thing of all time and I can’t believe I did this for a year: She would break up these little almond cookies and pour milk over it like it was cereal. Then I would eat it like that. Or we’d make everyone an egg. Mostly though, I would just eat the pastries. I reached a point where I realized it’s deeply unhealthy to eat cake for breakfast every day. I feel like I did that for a long time.
Also of interest: I have to take thyroid medicine every morning and wait to eat an hour. That’s disruptive for how I eat breakfast. If I take my pill first thing in the morning, it takes a while for me to get going and get to coffee. By then I have to go. I struggle because I wish I was a person who said, “I’ll start the day off with a chia pudding. And some broccoli or whatever.” But it just never ends up being that virtuous. Usually I do whatever I can do to get something into my body in the mornings. Really, lunch becomes the thing for me.
Does lunch turn into breakfast then?
A lot of the time. I grew up eating super savory breakfasts: bread and cheese, basically. Or bread and cheese and a cucumber. Or bread and cheese with radishes. Or bread and cheese with jam. Bread and cheese is my comfort breakfast, although I just told you that I shouldn’t be eating that much bread.
In Berkeley, where I live, there’s this little place called Bartavelle that my friend Suzanne Drexhage opened. It’s really sweet. There’s this Persian breakfast with herb salad and bread that’s close to barbari bread. Suzanne uses Acme bread. She put Feta cheese and yogurt, jam, and a few pickles and it’s a Californiaized version of Persian breakfast. Last time I was having it, there were these two old Iranian guys sitting next to me. They were giving me the Iranian recognition, and we were all sitting there eating the Persian breakfast.
Where do you do your writing? Do you eat there?
I have an office in downtown Oakland where I work with a bunch of other writers. I eat there and bring lunch every day. I learned pretty early that if I go out for lunch every day I get food coma and then I can’t do work. So, I usually bring a weird leftover thing I have. Being there was a good introduction because it was my first office. I’ve only ever worked in restaurants. I had to relearn what normal people eating is and that lunch doesn’t have to be this three-course thing with condiments.
Where are your favorite breakfast and brunch spots?
I’ll pretty much always choose to go to someone’s house. I like Bartavelle.
Dripline in West Oakland just opened. It’s Indonesian and run by a woman named Nora Dunning, who used to be head of food for Blue Bottle coffee. I get a Nasi Goreng before work sometimes, which is an Indonesian rice bowl of deliciousness.
What’s next for you?
My book’s coming out in England so I’ll be there for a big release for a couple of weeks. We’re going to start filming the documentary version of my book. Then I’m working on this column for the Times. I think between this column and the documentary, I’m booked.
What’s the story behind your kuku sabzi that was published as a video on Extra Crispy?
It’s a Persian frittata. Kuku is the word for frittata. Sabzi means greens, sort of. It’s like, you put whatever greens you have in there and cook them down and make an extraordinarily green cake. My mom makes the most delicious kuku sabzi. It’s pretty representative of Persian cooking because there are so many chopped herbs in it, so it’s so labor intensive to get it that green. It’s mostly veggies bound by eggs. It’s inverse proportions of what you think of as a Western frittata. It’s so green and rich and healthy. The other thing I love is that parsley is the most nutritious herb. But we’re not getting that many nutrients out of it usually. Iranian style, you get some nutritional benefit. It tastes better the next day, and you can have it with pita or lavash or Ber Beri bread. The outside is brown and gets really sweet. So, it’s nice with feta and pickles. It takes forever to make and is a lot of work unless you have leftover greens. You can cheat in the food processor. The most important thing is to make it so, so, so green. It’s one of my favorite Persian things to eat.