For our episode Four Persian Cooks, we spoke with a wonderful group of Persian cooks including Samin Nosrat. You probably know her from her fantastic book, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, or wildly popular Netflix show by the same name, through which she has taught millions of people how to see cooking in a new way. As the child of a Persian immigrant family, she is enamored by the extravagant and almost celebratory use of fresh herbs in Persian cuisine. Francis Lam talks with Nosrat about this herbal influence on her cooking, and also got her recipes for Kuku Sabzi (Persian Herb and Greens Frittata) and Persian Herb and Cucumber Yogurt.
Francis Lam: I have good news.
Samin Nosrat: What is it?
FL: The good news is we're not going to typecast you as the Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat lady today.
SN: Oh, thank you. That's great news.
FL: The possibly bad news is we're going to typecast you in another way.
SN: Okay. Cool.
Samin Nosrat and Francis Lam Photo: Erika Romero
FL: Because you happened to grow up with Persian food. As a casual observer, one of the things I've always felt was so interesting about Persian food and, to me, seemed like a defining characteristic of Persian food is the use of herbs. It’s a lot of herbs and they're used in a really different way than most Western European cuisines would use them. What do you feel is the Persian cook's perspective on herbs?
SN: I think the definitive thing is that herbs are a main ingredient and not just a garnish in our cooking. They are the main thing that my mom shopped for when I was little. It’s like she had a mental map of which stores had which herbs. And also, which ones had herbs in nice bunches. Because that's the other thing – I was writing a story about this a couple of years ago and didn't know this – but in Iran, herbs are not sold by the bunch, they're bought by the kilo, which is like six bunches.
FL: 2.21 pounds of dill.
SN: Yeah. I remember that absolutely from my mom, the role herbs played in our home kitchen and the way that every Iranian woman I know – it’s always the women – is like, “If only there wasn't this much chopping involved in Persian cooking!” The chopping almost always is of herbs. I's just mountains and mountains of herbs of different kinds that get cooked down into our food. That's the other big thing. One is the sheer amount of herbs used, and the other is the fact that, most of the time, they're cooked in a specific way. In the West, I feel like herbs are for chopping and sprinkling raw on top of your salad or on top of your –
FL: You finish it with a chiffonade of basil, and it's a teaspoon of basil for the whole platter. Tell me about cooking the herbs, because I think that is something that is really unusual for people who don't know the cuisine.
SN: There are sort of two main ways that herbs are used in Persian cooking. One is that when we sit down to a meal, no matter what meal it is, there's always a big platter or basket of fresh herbs at the table, it's called sabzi khordan. Sabzi is the word for herbs, and sabz is the word for green. So, it's just like, green things. (laughs) It's a big pile of green stuff.
My mom always took great care in coming home and washing the herbs, and then she always had them ready to go in one of two directions. It would either be on the table for the sabzi khordan, or more likely, it would be something that she chopped and cooked into a stew, or into the frittata that we call kuku sabzi, or into a soup, and sometimes even they weren't so much fried and cooked into rice, but they would be folded into rice and then steamed into the rice and you'd get these beautiful green rices.
The way that an herb transforms when you cook it is basically indescribable; it's something completely else. So, to me, when I sprinkle the chopped herbs on top of a dish, say, like in Italian cooking when you might make gremolata of chopped parsley and lemon zest and garlic, and you put that on top of your risotto, it's to freshen it at the last moment and give it this freshness. But, when you take that same parsley and you sizzle it until it breaks down, it becomes something else. It gets sweet, and the fragrance totally changes, and it tastes a lot more – this is a bad word to use, but I want to say – herbal and herbaceous. It tastes greener in the way that spinach changes; when you eat raw spinach salad, it's sweet and delicate and very light, but when you cook spinach, the flavor becomes a lot richer, and the same thing happens when you sizzle herbs.
Recipe: Kuku Sabzi (Persian Herb and Greens Frittata) Photo: velveteye | iStock | Getty Images Plus
FL: I never thought to do that with herbs, in part because I have this understanding of herbs that their flavor is too delicate to be messed with and too strong, in some cases, you don't want to overwhelm with the herbs. But, when you cook them, the high floral notes kind of disappear.
SN: What's funny about that is I was trained by Western cooks to think that that's the most special part of an herb – that delicacy and that lightness. And so, it's sort of like an un-training of your mind to understand that these other flavors are also really valuable and really special. No one's saying one is better or you can only have one, but isn't it amazing to experience all of the different manifestations of one ingredient and all of the different things that you can do with it?
The other thing I really love all of the parts of the herb we use in Iranian cooking, and a lot of other cultures use even more parts. In a lot of Southeast Asian cuisines, they use the root, like cilantro coriander root, which has a really amazing taste.
I remember when I was a little kid that I would go visit my grandparents on Saturdays; my grandma would always cook us a big Persian meal. Her neighbors were Filipino. I'd be playing in my grandma's garden in the backyard while she got our big family lunch ready, and there's always these smells coming from the neighbor's house. I was like, “What are those very strong smells? I don't like it, it's too intense.” Everyone in my family loved those smells; it was the smell of coriander seeds and cumin seeds frying.
I think that all of these different cultures have come along and figured out these different ways of using the entire plant and all of the different parts of it in different ways that extract these different flavors. There's so much value in that. I even think about how in the fancy kitchens where I came up, we never were to use the stems; it was only the leaves of things like parsley and cilantro, and we were always stripping the stems away. Sometimes you might put parsley stems or thyme stems in a stock, but that was it, all the other stems got thrown away.
And then, at some point, I met somebody – I can't remember who – who said, “Why would you throw away the cilantro stems? They're the sweetest, most flavorful part.” Then I started tasting them, and it's incredible. The best flavor of cilantro comes not from the leaf but from the stem. Now, I just always chop the whole bunch. Herbs define my cooking and they define the cooking of my childhood. It’s now my signature thing to add a handful of herbs on top of everything.
Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat
by Samin Nosrat
FL: In your professional being, you were informed by people who said the stems are not worth anything, but when you were growing up you were taught by your family who said to use the whole thing. Did you ever feel like what your family told you was obviously wrong because it's not the great chef telling you that?
SN: Of course. Everyone does that. First of all, no matter where you're from or who you are, you want to reject what your parents taught you at some point and believe that everyone else knows better. So, of course I went through that. I also went through shame, thinking that our culture is not refined, our culture doesn't have this exquisite cuisine, and only this French and Italian and Western European stuff that I'm learning at work has value. I had to un-brainwash myself out of that and come around to understanding that all cultures have value, all cuisines have value, and pretty much all cuisines, except for perhaps the ones in the U.S., have centuries and even millennia of history. There's something really special and valuable in that. And now, I'm so proud of all of these different parts of me. For a while, I felt like I wasn't measuring up as a Western cook. For my whole life, I felt like I don't measure up as an Iranian cook. I'm not as good as my mom or my grandma. Or when I try and make stuff, if I do make stuff, I'm like, “They would roll their eyes at this one, or raise an eyebrow.” It’s only in the last few years that I've come to a place where I understand that I'm both of these things, I'm all of these things. I am a Californian. I'm an Iranian. I'm a kid who has always loved to eat. I spent a lot of my time in Italy, and as a cook, probably more than anything else, I identify as an Italian cook. Everything that I've learned has made me, and I'm now finally comfortable admitting who I am.
FL: Samin, it was great to have you here.
SN: Oh, Francis, it was so fun to chat.
FL: Next time we'll talk about acid, I swear.