In the third episode of Samin Nosrat’s new Netflix series Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, the chef and author heads down to the Yucatán region of Mexico to learn about how to harness the power of acid. Early in the episode, Nosrat notes that acid “does the absolutely necessary job of balancing flavors, which makes it indispensable to cooking delicious food.” This installment of the show features some lovely footage of outdoor markets in Mérida, as well as a step-by-step guide to making one of the area’s signature dishes, pavo en escabeche.
What does Samin learn about acid in this episode?
Applying acid changes food in a number of ways. It adds brightness and provides contrast, but it can also be used to change the texture of the food as well. “Marinating in acid has a different effect on food than cooking in it does,” Nosrat explains. “A highly acidic marinade will tenderize meat. But if left too long, the meat will toughen up, like an overcooked steak.” Browning certain foods, like chile peppers, also produces acid, thus creating new flavors.
To show all of the different ways that acid can change ingredients for the better, Samin and local home cook Doña Conchi make pavo en escabeche, a turkey and meatball stew. First, they pour a marinade of sour orange juice and spices over turkey and let that sit for a few minutes. Then the chefs form the meatballs, and roast the chiles over an open flame. While those ingredients are cooking in a big pot, Samin and Doña Conchi make pickled onions. “Soaking the onions in acid takes the fire out of them, without diminishing the brightness they add to the dish,” Samin explains. After the meat has cooked for an hour, Samin and Doña Conchi eat the turkey and meatball stew with the peppers and pickles as garnishes, along with tortillas. “It’s perfectly balanced,” Samin remarks. “It’s so good.”
Later in the episode, the cookbook author samples various piquant salsas at a local taqueria in Mérida, and meets with tortilla expert Doña Asaria to learn all about nixtamalization. This ancient process involves soaking corn in lime and water to make masa that can be ground and used for tortillas. “The corn tortilla is a perfect foil for acid, because it has such a soft and steady flavor,” Nosrat remarks. “It balances the intensity of acidic ingredients.”
After a quick explainer about the pH scale, Samin heads to the town of Tixcacaltuyub, where local farmers harvest some of the world’s most prized honey. As our host explains, although honey is usually considered a sweet ingredient, it’s actually a sour food that hovers near the middle of the pH scale.
Then it’s back to Mérida, where Samin and her chef friend Regina scour a local market for chocolate and tomatoes — two sour foods — that will be incorporated into dinner that evening. The episode ends with a demonstration of how to make tikin xic — fish cooked in banana leaves — and a citrus pavlova. While making the dessert, Regina and Samin ponder the ever-changing flavor profiles of local citrus. “Even in a citrus grove, the fruit trees on one side of the grove and the other end of the grove will taste completely different,” Samin remarks. “The only way to know that it tastes right is to taste it.”
Who are some of the people Samin meets, and where does she visit?
Samin begins her journey at the citrus market in the town of Oxkutzkab where she remarks that, “The Yucatán is the citrus belt of Mexico.” After cooking the pavo en escabeche with Doña Conchi, she meets photographer Rodrigo Ochoa at an unnamed local outdoor taqueria (possibly Taqueria La Lupita). In the town of Tixcacaltuyub, Samin learns about Melipona honey from her guide, Andrea Figueroa, and hosts Doña Pascuala and Don Carlos (who, according to the Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat website are affiliated with the Fundación Haciendas del Mundo Maya). And at the end of the episode, she cooks with Regina Escalante, the chef of Restaurante Merci in Mérida.
What are some of the most quotable moments from this episode?
“My mother raised me on the sour foods she grew up eating in Iran. The flavors of lime, pomegranate, and yogurt shaped my palate. So from a young age, I learned to appreciate the beauty of acidity. And that’s why I’ve always been so fascinated with Mexican food, especially the cuisine from the Yucatán. Ceviche, sopa de lima, cochinita pibil all share many of the tart flavors I grew up eating. This makes Mexico the perfect place to explore the element that adds dimension to every dish.” — Nosrat, on the acidic foods that she grew up with, and her affinity for Mexican cuisine
“The list of acidic ingredients extends far beyond citrus and vinegar. Anything fermented is also acidic; that includes cheese, pickles, and beer. Most of us cook with acid without even realizing it. Think of beef stew cooked in red wine, or meatballs simmered in tomato sauce. When used as a cooking medium, acidic ingredients mellow, becoming subtle but essential flavors in a dish, while acting as a counterpoint to salty, fatty, sweet, and starchy foods.” — Nosrat, on foods that are deceptively high in acid
“My family is from Iran, and we eat very acidic food. So the thing we put on everything is yogurt. Even when my mom made spaghetti or pizza, we put yogurt on it. Once I became a cook, I stopped putting yourt on everything.” — Nosrat remembering the yogurt of her youth
“Not all cuisines share the same affinity for acid. I realized this in college, when I went to my very first Thanksgiving dinner. I loved the turkey and stuffing, but there was hardly anything acidic to cut through all the richness of the food. So I kept spooning cranberry sauce over everything. That experience was a great lesson in the importance of working acid into every part of a meal.” — Nosrat recalls her first Thanksgiving, and the lack of acid therein