When Samin Nosrat touches down in a new city, she heads straight for the supermarket.
"I'm obsessed with grocery stores in different places," Nosrat, the star of Netflix's Salt Fat Acid Heat, says. "It gives me a view into life there."
She likes to wander the aisles, taking stock of what's popular: the types of baking accessories in Britain, the terra-cotta cookware in Spain, the store brand of pesto in Italy. On the four-part series, she's often jet-setting from one stunning international vista to another. But sometimes it's the normalcy of day-to-day activities that brings a trip alive.
The professional chef and author has used food as a lens into people's lives for the past 18 years. Though Nosrat was no stranger to those in the food industry, Netflix's adaptation of her cookbook—in which she explores the titular four elements central to all good food—has brought her to the masses.
Each episode is a neatly packaged class: one part history, one part science, two parts practical grocery shopping and kitchen tips. The result will leave you feeling überconfident that you can braise short ribs with the best of them. But it will also make you want to hop on a plane to Italy, Japan, or Mexico. (Okay, who are we kidding? You'll want to go to all three.)
Photograph by Chris Sorensen; Illustration and Animation by Edu Fuentes; Hair and makeup by Ananda Ambrose for Big Leo Productions
Oozing with an energy that's bubbly and infectious, Nosrat bursts into laughter in person as often as she does on camera. She often switches seamlessly between the role of expert and student—she may have trained in a famous restaurant and written a James Beard Award–winning book, but she can also gush about the deliciousness of a $3 package of Trader Joe's frozen tamales.
It's that attitude that made us want to grill Nosrat about her key elements to great travel—and how you can get the most out of your experiences and money.
Nosrat can tear up just remembering a delicious bite. It's an amazing thing to watch as she recalls the rush of surprise and delight that comes when she eats a tasty dish for the first time.
"It's joy," she says. "My body is just exploding with joy."
She starts planning her trips around food because it's one of the easiest ways to explore new cultures and places. If travel is all about that lofty (but, yes, clichéd) goal of broadening your horizons, food is a conduit.
"Travel is just about getting to experience new, different, beautiful things, and the ways in which the diversity of this world never ceases to surprise and delight," Nosrat says. "To get that experience physically, in your body, by putting food in your mouth? It's just the easiest, most powerful, most delicious way to do it."
Food illustrates a region's history and customs in sometimes unexpected ways. Walk down the street in New Orleans and you can buy an authentic Vietnamese bánh mì or a fried Cajun po'boy. Both sandwiches feature the baguette as an ingredient, a legacy of France's colonization of Vietnam and Louisiana.
Exploring a culture through food doesn't have to be so profound, though. Nosrat makes a good point: Everyone everywhere eats throughout the day. That makes it a logical place to start figuring out what you want to do while traveling.
And, of course, there's the grocery store. By wandering the aisles, Nosrat says, she can glean how much Brits love baking by the "9 million kinds of sprinkles and decorations" sold in their stores. In Spain, she bought cazuelas (terra-cotta pots) for $6 at a generic grocery store, less than a quarter of what they'd cost in the U.S. She also uses these grocery store expeditions to grab some yogurt or bread and cheese to keep in her hotel, so she can give her stomach a break from eating back-to-back heavy meals. Plus, swapping out a restaurant meal saves some cash.
Those grocery store trips also yield a unique punctuation: She's been known to bring home treasures straight from the aisles— cute baking powder packages from England or salt from pretty much anywhere.
"I feel like I'm more of a citizen of the world," she says. "I have more of a relationship to all the ingredients that I love from all over the world."
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On Salt Fat Acid Heat, when Nosrat shops at a fish market in Japan or samples salsas at a taco stand in Mexico, it feels as if she's simply hanging out with in-the-know locals.
There was a production team to help achieve that vibe, of course. But research for every episode actually started with Nosrat's own contacts. And this drives home her central tip for getting the most out of your trip: You've got to talk to people.
When Nosrat was working at Berkeley's Chez Panisse, the famed restaurant credited with launching California's farm-to-table movement, she asked chefs there for suggestions for an upcoming trip to Barcelona. They sent her to Casa Gispert, a small roasted nut and spice shop that's been in business since the 1850s. Two decades later, she still describes it as the "most special place" to anyone who's visiting Barcelona.
"Talking to people is always going to lead you to something that's more personally gratifying than a generic list off the Internet," she says.
This strategy is admittedly easier for Nosrat than for many. She knows some big players in the culinary world, and she's got acquaintances all over. In Sydney last year, she visited her friend Danielle Alvarez's restaurant, Fred's (dubbed "the hottest table in town" by Australia's Gourmet Traveller). In Italy, she was mentored by famous butcher Dario Cecchini.
But your lack of cool connections shouldn't stop you. Planning a trip to Japan? Ask the family who owns your favorite Japanese spot in your hometown what you need to do and see. Headed to a massive city and overwhelmed by where to start? Search online for local experts, ideally ones who live where you're going. Nosrat has been to Rome a handful of times, but if someone asked for restaurant recommendations there, she'd tell them to read Katie Parla or Elizabeth Minchilli, two American writers who have spent years blogging about the city's food scene. Once you arrive, keep the questions coming. Talk with locals about where they spend their time and money.
Chef Amy Dencler and Nosrat in the kitchen of Chez Panisse in Berkeley during the filming of Salt Fat Acid Heat
On a trip to Havana with a group of chefs, Nosrat asked their driver to take them to where he eats lunch with other drivers. They ate rice, beans, and ropa vieja in the courtyard of a woman's house. She served them out of her window, and it cost less than $5. Nosrat swears it was the best meal of the trip.
Nosrat's enthusiasm practically pours out of her, so striking up a conversation with a taxi driver doesn't seem like a hard feat. You might feel awkward or shy or rude. Push past it.
The tactic can lead you to hidden gems at museums, beaches, bars, or shops to buy souvenirs. While staying in Mexico City—which she says is so big and beautiful and delicious that she could live there for years and not tire of it—Nosrat had her eye on some glasses she noticed at the place she was staying. They would cost a fortune in her home state of California, but she simply asked the owner of the guesthouse where she could get them locally. Done.
"I've learned everyone has something special to share," she says. "They're just waiting for you to ask."
Picture this: You're meandering down the sidewalk in a foreign city, pausing every few minutes to snap a dozen pictures with your selfie stick in front of all the landmarks and signs in sight. Are you proud of yourself, or are you cringing, afraid you'll end up in some tourist Hall of Lame?
You should face your fears. Nosrat has found that worrying less about embarrassing herself has actually made her a better traveler. You limit your experiences when you try too hard to play it cool, she says.
"Why would I be embarrassed?" she asks. "I'm coming to your country, and I'm trying to experience it. I won't get upset if you correct me. It's just another way to have a human interaction."
Nosrat in the kitchen at Trattoria Zibibbo in Florence, Italy, 2003
Courtesy of Samin Nosrat
Once you accept that it's okay to be a tourist, you can focus instead on being a better one by paying attention to local customs or learning a few local greetings.
So, ask for directions—repeatedly if needed. Point and pantomime if you don't speak the native language. Fly your tourist flag proudly.
She has similarly accepted that being overcharged at, say, a crafts market or in a taxi because she is an obvious out-of-towner is not the end of the world. Raised by Iranian immigrants who taught her all about haggling culture, this wasn't easy. ("I'm very used to never paying full price for anything.")
She looks at this "traveler tax," or upcharge, as the cost for treading on someone else's space. This isn't an endorsement of some pricey guided tour you can book online months ahead. She wants her money to go to the people who are actually making the textiles or wood-carved spoons she's buying. People who live there and rely on tourism for their livelihood. If she has to pay a bit more to help sustain a traditional form of craftwork or cooking, that's money well spent, in her eyes.
Have you ever spent weeks looking forward to a trip, picturing how perfect it will be—how refreshing and exciting and "fomo"-inducing for all your friends stuck at work—only to return home disappointed?
You're not alone—and there's science to back it up. A 2014 study by researchers at University College London found that happiness is driven more by how your experiences measure up against your expectations.
Nosrat is no stranger to the post-vacation blues. When she was younger, she'd take off with an itinerary of things she expected to see or do. It felt like she was just pushing to check items off a list.
"Now I just let things happen as they happen, and that has made me a lot happier as a traveler," she says.
Part of relaxing your expectations may mean letting go of the need to travel to an exotic, expensive place. Nosrat's favorite destination in the U.S. is Big Sur, a three-hour drive from where she lives in California. That dramatic, breathtaking coastline doesn't get old, she says.
"Little things about the way people live can change the way we live," Nosrat says.
Photograph for Money by Chris Sorensen; Hair & Makeup by Ananda Ambrose for Big Leo Productions.
"Every time I go there, I feel like I'm connected to the earth in a whole new way," she says.
Or maybe chilling out means realizing you can have a memorable trip without hitting the hottest, trendiest attractions. Nosrat, for one, doesn't care anymore about eating at the highest-rated, priciest restaurants. While filming Salt Fat Acid Heat in Japan, one of her most memorable bites was munching on "winged gyoza" in the back of a van. A friend in college first told her about the dish, which is similar to traditional gyoza, except the dumplings have a sort of fried wing from attaching to other gyoza in a jam-packed pan. That "starchy, fried goodness," as Nosrat puts it, isn't something you can get at a fancy restaurant in Tokyo. Street food is her food and should be yours, too, she would argue.
Ultimately, these elements of travel give her what she values most: "collecting flavor memories"—food profiles that she can bring home and try to re-create, like the homemade pesto she learned to make with a mortar and pestle in Italy. And hopefully, she can meld those experiences into her own— a way to extend the life of eating, asking, embracing, and chilling.
"I've always looked at food as a way to tell stories and share experiences," she says. "Little things about the way people live can change how we live."