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Tuesday, Oct 15, 2019

A pinch of this, a dash of that: Kunal Vijayakar’s ode to salts with a twist

There’s pink sea salt and pink Himalayan, various shades of black and grey, a blue-white and a Persian blue. What’s your favourite sel?

mumbai Updated: Jan 18, 2019 22:33 IST
Kunal Vijayakar
Kunal Vijayakar
Hindustan Times
(Getty Images / iStock)
         

Salt is salt is salt. We barely think about it. In recipes, it’s an ingredient that is usually dismissed with the phrase, “As per taste”. Why am I going on and on about salt? Because the history of salt goes as far back as 6,050 BC, and such was its importance even then that it was once used as currency.

Salt, symbolising purity, has been an indispensable part of religious ritual in many cultures too. The Bible alone has more than 30 references to sodium compound.

The influence and importance of salt in ancient times can also be recognised in the number of weighty words derived from it. Words like, salary, salut, salaam, salvation, even halo, hallelujah and assault all find their origins in the word. When Gandhi wanted to demonstrate that India had had enough, he launched his nonviolent civil disobedience with the Dandi March, a battle over a tax on salt.

The crystalline substance is the essential seasoning without which most of us would be unable to cook. Salt arouses one of the five basic taste sensations, along with sweetness, sourness, bitterness and savouriness. Its colossal importance is most evident in absentia — do you remember the last time you forgot to add salt to a dish?

Today, salt is no longer just that white powder in a shaker. Renowned chefs around the world are finding it ‘beneath their salt’ to use plain, simple idodised namak. They are clamouring for designer salts. Salt now comes in crystals, rocks and flakes in shades of pink, blue, grey and black; from the mountains and from lakes, from mines and also the desert. 

A few years ago, a friend presented me with a packet of blush-pink salt. He said it was from Camargue in France, near the Mediterranean Sea. Camargue is famous for its pink flamingoes and this pink salt; my friend claims there’s a connection, but I don’t know. What I do know is that the most famous pink salt comes from the Himalayas, and at the moment it is all the rage.

Pink Himalayan Salt, according to those in the know, is one of the purest salts in the world. Its lovely, unsullied translucent crystals are rich in mineral content and flavour, and the salt’s origins can be traced back to ancient Himalayan seas that evaporated over 200 million years ago.

Besides using Pink Himalayan Salt in cooking, you can get a mortar and pestle made from Himalayan Pink Salt. Grinding herbs and masalas, crushing garlic, or making chutneys in it is a great way of having the flavour and texture of this salt leech into a dish, I’m told.

The French, meanwhile, have gone batty over Guerande Grey Salt. It comes from Guerande, a coastal town in Brittany. The salt is a light grey and is harvested from shallow saltwater ponds, in the same way that the Celtics did centuries ago. Guerande Grey Salt is being used in roasts, soups and stocks all over Culinary Europe. They are using it to flavour the water used for cooking vegetables, rubbing it onto meat and potatoes before barbeque and using it on fish cooked in a salt crust.  

Flower of Salt, or Fleur de Sel, is another popular kind and this pure white salt also comes from Guerande. It looks like delicate flakes of snow, in a pale shade of violet that makes the salt seem even whiter. Flower of Salt, they say, intensifies the taste of food by coaxing the finesh flavours out of a dish.

Then, from the Middle-East, there’s Persian Blue Salt, which comes from Persia the Ergourz mountain range in northern Iran. This blue salt was formed about a hundred million years ago and is one of the world’s rarest salts; only a few tonnes are extracted every year. It is rich in nutrients, has lemony notes and helps reduce the acidity of food. It’s great in Mediterranean salads, sauces and on raw vegetables, especially tomatoes.

From the island of Molokai in Hawaii comes the luscious Onyx Black Lava Salt, once harvested from volcanic areas but today made by infusing sea salt with activated charcoal. It’s a great finishing salt, with a strong smoky taste that makes it perfect for roasts, roasted vegetables, stir-fry dishes and for meat on the spit.

We have our own black salt in India, of course. We call it Kala Namak, though it actually starts off pink. The raw pink salt is mixed with spices, herbs, aamla, harad seeds and charcoal, heated to high temperatures and then cooled. The end result is an extremely pungent salt that actually smells of boiled eggs but is an excellent seasoning for chaats, chutneys, salads, raw fruit and raitas.

Suddenly, I find that salts are fascinating me. And these are just a few of the ones I’ve come across. There’s also Danish, Sicilian, and Australian Murray River Salt, Kosher, Smoked, and Pickling Salt, Namibian Salt Pearls and Jukyeom (Korean salt roasted in bamboo). Tell me your favourites. What’s the strangest salt you’ve ever heard of?

First Published: Jan 18, 2019 22:33 IST

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