Samin Nosrat joins us to talk about cooking, conflict, and the global forces shaping the food on our plates. Have you ever tried Saigon cinnamon? How about Iranian saffron? Learn about the flavors and traditions we lose when war and international politics get in the way.
We get real about “kimchi diplomacy.” And we talk about the alternating slog and beauty of cooking as a way to connect to our own bodies — and support others — when times are hard.
Guest: Samin Nosrat, writer, cook, and teacher
Before Croissants, There Was Kubaneh, a Jewish Yemeni Delight, Tejal Rao, The New York Times Magazine
What’s an Aleppo Pepper?, Layla Eplett, Scientific American
The Experiment Presents SPAM, Julia Longoria and team, WNYC & The Atlantic
MARK HEELEY: Okay, so that’s incorporated. Now we want to introduce the ground beef back to the pan.
LAICIE HEELEY: I’m Laicie Heeley. This is Things That Go Boom. And that’s my husband, Mark.
MARK: Smells good, right?
LAICIE: It does smell good.
MARK: Smells good
LAICIE: The thing he’s cooking right now, it has a long history in our house. His mother and grandmother made it. And our kids know it really well.
MARK: Hey, Bubuhs! Time to eat.
LAICIE: So when we sit down to this meal, there’s a history in the air. But, not all of that history… is obvious… unless you’re Samin Nosrat.
SAMIN NOSRAT: I’m a nerd, I’m a real nerd, so I do a lot of homework. I love the homework. I love trying to figure out how things got to places and I revel in that dorkiness.
LAICIE: You might know Samin. She’s the author of the cookbook Salt Fat Acid Heat…which she also adapted into a docuseries on Netflix…. and she writes for the New York Times. When we sat down to talk a few weeks ago, we geeked out a little bit on spaghetti.
SAMIN: There are so many Spaghettis, almost every culture has its spaghetti. Like, Ethiopia for example…
LAICIE: Which was once occupied by Italy.
SAMIN: And so there are all these amazing Italian foods that show up in Ethiopia and then become Ethiopian. They’re, like, Ethiopian Italian. And so there’s Ethiopian lasagna that has Ethiopian spices in it but it’s still lasagna. And an Ethiopian person would not consider their family cookbook complete without it. And there’s Ethiopian spaghetti.
LAICIE: There’s also Welsh spaghetti.
Well actually, I’m pretty sure there’s not. But that’s what we call this dish that my husband was making – it’s noodles with beef, a little salt and pepper, garlic and onion powder and stewed tomatoes…
SAMIN: Sounds real bland. Okay.
LAICIE: It’s not… not bland.
LAICIE: You serve it with straight up, just like iceberg lettuce.
SAMIN: Whoa! Like the iceberg lettuce is on top? Like instead of parmesan?
LAICIE: It’s actually a little iceberg salad…
MARK: a lot of black pepper, a lot of salt, sherry vinegar. And then this is a little bit of olive oil… and then you just toss it.
LAICIE: And you serve them so close that they sort of–
LAICIE: They mingle. And you have to let them mingle because otherwise there’s absolutely no flavor. So you really have to have the vinegar order to like, get it all going.
SAMIN: I’m not gonna lie, I would eat that, but like–
LAICIE: It’s not, you know, it’s, it’s not the worst thing. It’s like a, it’s a real, like, weeknight meal that you just like throw it together real quick and, you know, it’s–
SAMIN: That’s amazing.
LAICIE: And forever it is Welsh Spaghetti.
SAMIN: There you go.
LAICIE: For whatever fun I like to poke at it now, this spaghetti we love has an undeniable pull toward memories of family…It’s an experience that so many of us share. Food is powerful like that.
SAMIN: You know in my family we call it ‘es spaghetti,’ right? Like my mom has her way of making it.
And also, I lived in Italy for two years. I speak pretty good Italian. I know that anybody in Italy would be horrified to eat or see what we make in my mom’s house as spaghetti.
LAICIE: What is it? What does it look like?
SAMIN: Well, for one thing, my mom’s family’s Muslim, so there’s no pork, it’s just beef, which is just like, that’s already a problem. And then it’s just so much tomato.. and then mushrooms. Like, why on earth would you combine mushroom and beef? That’s insane…just so much oregano.
I mean, it tastes totally good. It’s the taste of my childhood, but there’s so much sauce. It’s like way too much sauce for an Italian person. And then the thing we do that I love because it’s like my acquired taste of my childhood is if there’s leftover, or even if there’s not, my mom will take the spaghetti, mix it with the sauce. It’s usually cooked way past al dente. So another thing, an Italian would be like horrified by, and then she’ll mix it up and then she’ll take the pot that we boiled the spaghetti in, put it back on the stove, put a whole bunch of oil in the bottom, heat it up, and then put the mixed pasta with the sauce back in and create a crust, a golden crust, like a tahdig, which we do with our rice.
LAICIE: Ah, nice. Oh, with pasta.
SAMIN: So we’ll get a pasta tahdig. So we’ll get a golden crispy pasta crust, which again is something they would never, ever do… There are versions of that…
LAICIE: But I love it, yeah.
SAMIN:…in Italy, but they’re very specific. You would never do that with your freshly made pasta.
But you take your ingredient and you do your thing with it and it becomes yours. And is that wrong? I don’t know. You’re not saying it’s what would be served on a table in Milan. As long as there’s been a ship, or feet, or a train– as long as there have been people in more than one place, cooking traditions have always been, exchanged amongst people.
And that’s not to say there’s no such thing as appropriation or no such thing as complete disrespect of a cuisine. Of course there is, like you do your homework, pay respect, all that kind of stuff. But, we’re constantly evolving. And, certainly in this country, there are people from all over the world coming here and trading ingredients.
LAICIE: Food can be a window into how the world works. It’s also a map of where people have been and how they’ve interacted.
And Samin, well, she has actually been making me think about food this way for a while.
SAMIN: And I think, you know, here you are, however many years later and YOU remember, you know?
LAICIE: And I remember the cinnamon I remember the taste of the cinnamon
LAICIE: On this episode of Things That Go Boom, even with time and distance… and sometimes war, food stays with us.
So, pull up a plate of whatever spaghetti you like… as we dig in with Samin Nosrat.
LAICIE: Way back in the before times, when going to a big event in a crowded theater still felt normal… I went to see this show called Pop-Up Magazine. It’s a performance where storytellers of all kinds – audio, visual, musical, take to the stage.
And on this particular night in DC, one of those storytellers was Samin… which is why we were so excited to have her join us.
SAMIN: I had a feeling that was why.
LAICIE: See, she told this incredible story about Aleppo pepper and cinnamon.
SAMIN: So, should I tell the story here?
LAICIE: Please! I would love that.
SAMIN: Okay. So, um, I was curious about the fact that. You know, the narrative we’re taught as children about spices is that, you know, way back when there were all of these wars fought over spices.
LAICIE: This is definitely what I learned in school – that the spice trade was a little bit about the silk road and a lot about the dark history of European colonialism.
But thinking about spice wars as something from the 1600s ignores how much we still trade spices all over the world today. And how powerful war still is in influencing how we season our food.
Back in 2015, when Syria was crumbling, avocado toast sprinkled with Aleppo pepper was trending.
SAMIN: And so it was this thing that as a cook, I was very familiar with this pepper that had this name. And then as a person in the world, I was seeing this place that this pepper originated being destroyed. And you know, I would watch basically hipsters pay $12 for toast and I was like is nobody connecting the dots here? It was kind of really disturbing me. And so I got really curious about that and I said, Well if this place where this pepper comes from is gone, what’s gonna happen to this pepper? So I started digging about that and it turned out that Aleppo Pepper actually hadn’t even been grown in Aleppo for a long time. And that it was coming from Turkey and like it wasn’t even really coming from Turkey anymore. By that point, almost all of the Aleppo pepper in the world was just sort of a generic pepper coming from China.
LAICIE: So it turns out the devastation in Syria wasn’t going to have much of an impact on avocado toast in the US… but Samin knew there was something deeper here.
SAMIN: And there is this way where war can feel, you know, a world away from us and feel like, Oh, well that doesn’t actually have any influence on our daily life or anything that we do.
But, as I started to think about it, I was like, ‘Oh there actually are all of these like incredibly powerful ways. That the way that even I cook or I choose to flavor a dish is affected.’ And for me, that’s been happening my whole life. My family’s from Iran and my grandparents and aunts and uncles and parents and everybody who comes back and forth from Iran, smuggles Persian saffron home.
And that’s not something that’s really readily available to buy here in this country due to sanctions. You know, if you’re kind of clever, you can find Iranian saffron here, but it tastes very different and it’s incredibly fragrant in a totally different way than other saffrons. And it’s the taste of my childhood and my people.
LAICIE: Which brings us to the taste that I still can’t stop thinking about, all these years later.
See, sitting in the audience that night at Pop-Up Magazine, I became the proud owner of two little marshmallows that I had no idea what I might do with.
SAMIN: I thought, well, what can we do in an auditorium that we can’t do on the page? And that’s, well, either smell or taste something together.
LAICIE: See, those marshmallows were covered in cinnamon. But probably not the cinnamon you have on your shelf right now.
SAMIN: I had grown really interested in Saigon cinnamon, this Vietnamese cinnamon that’s so fragrant and so packed with the aromatic oils that when I first had tasted it maybe 10 years earlier, I couldn’t believe that it was not an artificial flavor cuz it tastes exactly like Big Red Gum.
SAMIN: It’s so crazy and..
LAICIE: Completely different from the cinnamon we’re used to tasting.
SAMIN: Totally different from the cinnamon you grew up eating, like that you associate with, you know, like apple cider donuts or apple pie or the things that we have that are our childhood. You think of it as artificial but it’s not.
And the reason that we didn’t grow up with it is because it’s from Vietnam and there were sanctions against Vietnam basically our entire lives until the Clinton presidency. And so only in the late nineties did it start to become available here and at first it was in fancy food shops and now, any grocery store you can find it. It’s called either Saigon Cinnamon or Vietnamese Cinnamon. But it tastes totally different. And so it was this flavor that we were robbed of. And I wanted to demonstrate that. So I had this really talented candy maker make two different marshmallows, and I guided the audience to taste the two marshmallows in order so that they could experience that missing flavor.
LAICIE: That Big Red Gum-like cinnamon. Which is an example of a story, like so many in global security, that just slipped quietly through the cracks.
SAMIN: I think on some level it’s funny that we’re sitting here today talking about this. I’ve been thinking a lot about Iran. Obviously that’s where my family’s from. And every day right now, women are protesting in the streets of Iran and dying. And Iran doesn’t really get the coverage it deserves I think. And I feel like there’s just a general erasure of my people.
And I mean, they’re affected by the sanctions in the other way. I mean, here I am complaining we can’t get saffron, but they can’t get milk and just everything costs so much money in the country. And so it’s just incredibly dire, incredibly sad. And that’s just one country– you know, I don’t wanna like only put all the attention onto the country that my people are from. I mean, it ha– it’s happening all over the world.
The thing I think about is the people who are affected. And I think it’s because like my parents were the people who had to leave and my grandparents were the people who had to leave.
And so that hits really close to home for me. And if I can manage to make a story relatable in a way that affects you in a sensory way, in a way that’s material to your life. And I truly think the senses are the sort of most direct path to memory and to the heart and to our emotions. And so, if there’s a way to do that, then I would like to try to do that. And I think that taste is a really powerful sense and smell is a really powerful sense. And that food offers that. And it can get real sappy real fast. And I don’t wanna go there.
I really mean like that you’re sitting here five years later or seven years later or whatever and you’re still remembering that marshmallow. That’s what I mean. And so how do we do that where people just have a little bit more awareness and empathy for things that are not happening right in front of them?
I would like to live in that world. Yeah.
LAICIE: After the break, we dig deeper into food, identity, and cooking in crisis.
But in the meantime: We have a job for you, should you choose to accept.
Take a second, think about your own food histories. Ask your parents for their stories. Write your own down. And then, tell us all about it! We love getting your emails and comments and sharing in your discoveries. Especially around the holidays.
You can send them to us on social @inkstickmedia or write email@example.com.
We’ll be right back.
LAICIE: Early in the pandemic, food kept a lot of us from spiraling. Whether we were learning to make sourdough … or hoarding cans of chili, food was a welcome distraction.
Samin even made a podcast all about food called Home Cooking that helped a lot of people get creative with their ingredients during lockdown… and the power of food during times of crisis is still on her mind.
SAMIN: I’ve been thinking a lot about cooking and joy. And I think cooking a lot of times is a drag. And certainly during the pandemic when we were all trapped inside, and I live by myself, but there are a lot of people, especially women, like stuck doing the care work, including the cooking. And I don’t wanna like, you know, make light of the fact that it’s hard work. But I do think in that same way that connecting with the senses is a really powerful tool. I think anytime like I can get back into my body and use my hands and use my senses, and remember that I even have a body. Which I have to say, like most of the time I just feel like a floating head.
And I say that as a person who has had a really rough year just dealing with very intense family crises. And I haven’t been cooking because I’ve been in and out of hospitals and just doing a lot of really hard sort of family stuff and eating a lot of Barbara’s Cheese Puffs.
And so finally I got home and I’ve been trying to return to having a little bit of a routine and it started getting a little bit colder here in the Bay Area and I was like, ‘Okay, what can I do?’
And I craved a pot of chicken broth. And so I made myself a chicken broth and then I was like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna make a pot of beans.’ And my garden’s totally overgrown. So I went back in the garden and I harvested all the beans. All these small little things just the smell of the chicken broth, the shelling of the beans, the rice cooker cooking the rice I was like, “Oh, okay.”
None of this is complicated. None of it’s fancy. My friend came over the other day to bring her little son over for a hello and I was starving and I was like, ‘Oh, do you want some of this rice and beans? It’s done.’ And I, I dug out this, uh, these like little sofrito cubes I had in the freezer and, and thrown ’em in the beans.
And she was like, ‘Why are these beans so good? They’re the best beans I’ve ever had.’ And she makes beans all the time. They’re totally good at her house. And I was like, ‘Oh, they’re just these sofrito cubes. I wrote a recipe about it a while ago. I’ll send you the recipe.’ And she was just like, ‘I can’t believe how good they are.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, I guess I am a good cook.’
Like there is this way where it wasn’t even the eating of the beans, it was just the process of sort of remembering like, ‘Oh, I do know how to make this thing.’ And I had even burned the beans. Like I, I was not paying attention and the water ran out and they kind of burned. I had to switch the pot.
Like, but also just remembering. ‘Oh, I do know how to take care of myself a little bit. Oh, I do have this pot of chicken stock and like some chicken shredded, and I can eat this for a few days.’
And I don’t know, like it’s not rocket science. I don’t have to go to therapy 19 times this week. I don’t have to do the most extreme thing. I can just do this tiny thing and return to my body and remember what it feels like to wash a dish. And I don’t need to make the most extreme version of anything. And this is a small ritual that helps me feel better. Um, and also sometimes I’m just gonna eat Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups for dinner and that’s fine too. like, you know what I mean? Like it can’t all be the best ever. Always.
LAICIE: I wondered if, in addition to providing comfort in times of crisis, food could also bridge our political and diplomatic divides… if kimchi diplomacy was really a thing.
Samin wasn’t sold.
SAMIN: I don’t know. I mean, that’s where we’re getting to that like Pollyanna sappy thing a little bit like, um, and so like you’re catching me on like a grumpy day. So I don’t know that I’m like, willing to say that.
LAICIE: Not so much.
SAMIN: Sometimes I’m like, Oh yeah, totally whatever. Eat the stuff and you’ll believe it. But also I’m like, there are a lot of people who eat Palestinian food and don’t care. There are a lot of people who eat Persian food and don’t care. There are a lot of people who eat, you know, Mexican food and freaking want the wall, you know, or whatever. I, I don’t know that, I don’t know that that’s enough. I don’t know that that’s enough.
LAICIE: How though, when we are thinking about bringing things to other places and we’re thinking about changing them how does that change our perception of people and how does that change the way that we interact with other cultures?
SAMIN: Yeah. I’m trying to think… Hmm.
SAMIN: I guess to me, it depends who’s doing the bringing and who’s doing the incorporating. And I say this from like a really personal place of–I grew up in Southern California going to eat at like Persian kabab restaurants, chelo kabab. And they are all over San Diego, all over Orange County, all over Los Angeles. There’s a gazillion of them, Persian rice is–we take our rice really seriously, we take our crispy rice, our tahdig, really really seriously.
And in my experience, it wasn’t until two white women started making it in East LA and charging $17 for a side dish that it got some attention in the food press. And I really actually like those women and I like the restaurant a lot but like that was really hard for me to see.
And so I’m never out here saying the answer is not to cook or eat other people’s food because of course you should cook and eat other people’s food. You should explore the world through eating. Like that’s a wonderful way to learn. But the question I think we should always be asking is, ‘Who does this belong to? And are they gaining anything from this? Am I adding or am I taking away?’
LAICIE: Throughout American history, and even global history, entire cultures have been devalued… or elevated… through food.
Think about the way that we perceive French food as refined, maybe even expect to pay more for it.
SAMIN: Okay. This is, so this, this blew my mind, and I think about this all the time. It’s from 2017. Ok.
LAICIE: At this point in our conversation, Samin quickly pulled up an article by her colleague, Tejal Rao.
SAMIN: So there’s this bread, there’s this Yemeni bread called Kubaneh. And it’s this flaky like pull apart rolls that you sort of like, roll up these rolls and you stick ’em all together and you bake ’em in like a cake pan. It’s kind of like a monkey bread or something is how you could maybe describe it.
But the way it’s made is that it’s a very rich, buttery dough. And then it gets rolled out very thinly and then butter gets smeared on top of the dough and then, and then it gets rolled up into like, almost like a cinnamon roll with butter in between.
LAICIE: It looks like a cinnamon roll, like a savory cinnamon roll.
SAMIN: Exactly. It’s like a savory cinnamon roll. And in this piece, she tells the story of this bread and she talks about how it’s actually essentially like a rudimentary laminated dough.
And laminated doughs are, like, if I say laminated doughs, you might not know what I’m talking about, but they’re basically doughs, they’re rich doughs that have a fat, like butter, in between the layers. And so you can think of like a croissant or puff pastry. And so, if I were to say that, probably what would come to mind is a croissant or a puff pastry.
And like if you thought about that, you’d think, ‘Oh, well those came from Austria and France. That’s the height of lamination.” Right? And that’s probably what I would’ve said too, is like that’s where this was invented, that’s where this was developed. But what then she says is like actually, for 800 years before that, this stuff was being done all across, the Fertile Crescent and India.
And all of these, like Yemeni and Lebanese breads are rudimentary versions of laminated breads. And there are these flaky, delicious, buttery breads. They might not have been made with these like machines and all this kind of stuff, but it’s the same exact thing.
And in fact, like the origin, I don’t know if it’s true, but like the sort of fable of the croissant is that it was the like crescent on the, on the Turkish flag. So it probably did come from some farther east place to Europe. So it was one of these things where you’re like, ‘Oh, my brain has been conditioned to always assign these like things to the west and to Europe.’
As a cook, you’re like, ‘Of course that’s the same thing. Duh.’ And those are like thousands of years old. They’re way older than croissants. And just because they were made sort of by a lady with a hand instead of this like a fancy chef with a toque.
SAMIN: Right? In his cool room, on his marble..in his militaristic sort of kitchen, it’s easy not to assign the value to it but actually it has just as much skill. It has just as much story. It has just as much everything. And so that’s the kind of stuff where I’m like, ‘Oh my God, this is–I’m unlearning my own racism.’
LAICIE: The value we assign things is rooted in a long history of appropriation, but not every story starts that way.
Food and cooking techniques have always been shared, and stolen, and adapted around the world.
Like when Lebanese immigrants settled in Mexico, they brought along shawarma.
SAMIN: And so, you know, if you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, like al pastor tacos are traditional Mexican.’ Yeah, but those come from Lebanese traditions. Like, so it’s just this thing where what’s authentic is in some ways a moot question because it’s always changing.
LAICIE: And war is often the thing that’s doing the changing.
SAMIN: I remember I had this soup once that kind of blew my mind and it was called like Treasure Chest Soup. It had so many of the traditional Korean flavors like gochujang and all this stuff. But then it had like spam and hot dogs and then on top it had, American cheese sort of griddled on top.
SAMIN: And I was like, This is truly bananas. And this was a long time ago but it maybe even also had like ramen noodles in there. But it was basically like every packaged ingredient that might have been in a, like a military rations that had been traded.
LAICIE: All put together.
SAMIN: Yeah. Which was truly prized and valuable, mixed with all these, like kimchi and all this kind of stuff. And it was so valued that it was called treasure chest soup. Right? Like that’s the translation.
One of the things I’ve always said about cooking that things like this remind me, is there’s only seven things that we know how to make. Like across the world, humanity is not that creative.
Like, like of course on the, I’m like being ridiculous, but there are only so many things you can do with the ingredients. And so there are all of these wonderful ways in which they come to life with all of the inflections of the different cultures and the different ingredients.
LAICIE: Kind of like that Welsh, or Persian, or Ethiopian spaghetti.
SAMIN: And also, there’s only so many things you can do with fat and starch. There’s only so many things you can do with a pot of water and some meat. There are only so many things you can do with fire and vegetables, right? And so you can call it grilling, you can call it this, you can call it this, you can call it this, you can call it this, but it’s all grilling, you know what I mean?
It’s just–I love connecting those dots across time and space.
LAICIE: What’s giving you hope right now?
SAMIN: Kids mostly. I love, I mean, yeah.
LAICIE: I have four of those.
SAMIN: You do? Oh my gosh.
LAICIE: I do. I have four. They are 16, 6, 3, and one.
SAMIN: Oh my God. Oh my God. That’s a big spread. Wow.
LAICIE: Chaos. Chaos. Chaos.
SAMIN: That’s like true true chaos, yeah.
Kids give me, they’re incredibly present in the now and that’s very helpful. Anything like that, that just kind of brings me to my senses and to my body and to now and to my feelings and I just, yeah. I have to say like, I am going through a lot of sort of, my father just died and like, I’m dealing with a lot of like parental and family, like sadness and trauma and um, I think in a lot of ways I’m reflecting a lot of my own childhood. And so being around kids in a lot of ways is a healing thing because I’m like, ‘Oh, like, this is what it could have been like,’ or ‘This is like what a kid should be treated like,’ or I get to sort of like treat the little me inside like I treat these other kids. So, I don’t know, it’s just nice.
LAICIE: Thank you so much again for talking to me today.
SAMIN: Oh, thank you for having me. Thank you for engaging me in this lovely conversation. Best of luck with your wild spread of children.
LAICIE: That evening, after Samin and I parted ways, I told my husband that we’d talked about his Welsh spaghetti. And he laughed.
But then he also revealed something I never would have guessed…Somewhere along the way, he had actually changed the recipe to make it less bland. His grandmother’s version was made with canned tomato SOUP.
Things That Go Boom is distributed by Inkstick Media and PRX.
This episode was produced by Nikki Galteland and me, and edited by Sahar Khan, Christina Stella and Katie Toth.
As always, Darien Shulman writes the music for our show. And Robin Wise makes each episode sound like a veritable treasure chest in a bowl.
Thank you to the supporters and foundations that make our work possible: The Carnegie Corporation of New York and Ploughshares Fund, as well as Inkstick’s supporters, including the Colombe Foundation, Craig Newmark Foundation, Prospect Hill Foundation, and the Jubitz Family Foundation and, of course, that you to all of you for supporting our show.
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Also, come back in two weeks because next time on the show: Are active-duty military families really going hungry? Join us as we learn what living on a soldier’s salary is really like.
THE HEELEY FAMILY: What is it? I don’t know. Is it a noodle? Yeah. It’s a ramen noodle. Not a ramen noodle. It’s a spaghetti noodle. It’s a spaghetti noodle. Is it good?