Take with a pinch of (pink) salt

Shabnam Minwalla | Updated on July 26, 2019 Published on July 26, 2019

Age-old companion: The story of salt is so connected with the history of mankind   -  ISTOCK.COM

The most common kitchen ingredient has gone full designer

It’s the basic ingredient of most kitchens — the stuff that goes into virtually everything that’s baked, braised or boiled. It’s the no-fuss component that’s consumed without lengthy debates over creamy or chunky; brown or white; skimmed or whole.

Right? Wrong, actually.

For in this age of sous-vide machines and boutique waters, hibiscus doughnuts and home-brewed beers, nothing escapes the notice of the fancy-schmancy foodwalas. Not even common salt.

Till not so long ago, salt shopping meant tossing a ₹20 bag into my trolley at Sahakari Bhandar. My only expectation from this white powder was that it should be salty.

The salt I bought invariably fulfilled its brief. And if I ever thought about it — which was really not often — I was satisfied. Until I stumbled upon the tantalising world of posh salts. Pretty pink Himalayan salt, grey flakes of Celtic Sea salt, white crystals of good old Arabian Sea salt, wicked-looking kala namak and even blue Persian salt. (Though you have to squint a bit to actually see the blue bits.)

All of a sudden, these designer salts are everywhere: On Amazon and the buffet spreads of five-star breakfasts; in mouthwatering recipes and chick lit books; in friends’ kitchens and in my dreams.

I still buy the basic white powder but keep wondering what I’m missing. Maybe I should be investing in fleur de sel (crisp, delicate crystals, skimmed off the top of the salt pools in Brittany, that are touted as the caviar of salt). Or applewood smoked salt (that imparts not just plain, old saltiness, but also fruity and smoky flavours).

Will my roast potatoes be boring because I haven’t gotten hold of chicken salt (an Australian creation made of dehydrated chicken and mushroom powder and packed with umami)? Will my soup lack “complexity and savouriness” because I haven’t taken the plunge with fishy anchovy salt?

For that matter, should I be dispensing with salt flakes altogether and getting myself a great big slab of pink Himalayan salt instead?

You’re forgiven for looking zapped about this one. I looked zapped too when I first stumbled upon it, and it took me some time to understand that we’re not expected to chip away at the pink brick, like diligent carpenters. We’re supposed to use it as a platter — in the oven, on the stovetop and on the table — while it gently salts the foods that sit on it.

On Amazon, it’s possible to buy a salt sampler which offers 16 varieties — including a red blend of sea salt and volcanic clay from Hawaii and a green salt infused with matcha from Japan. It’s $30 for 100g of salt with some pretty colours and effusive literature thrown in for free.

Before you baulk at the price, though, remember that there was a time when salt was a precious commodity. In the sub-Sahara of the sixth century, an ounce of salt was traded for an ounce of gold. In other parts of Africa, cakes of salt were used as currency. Medieval Venice, the city of pomp and prosperity, owed its glitter to its salt works and thuggish approach to the local salt trade.

The story of salt is so connected with the history of mankind, that it’s impossible to write a mere food column on the subject. Historians believe that salt mines in Romania and China were up and running as early as 6000 BC. By 2700 BC, an early Chinese treatise on pharmacology discussed 40 kinds of salt.

In an era before refrigerators and canning, salt was used to preserve meat, fish and butter. Egyptians went one step further, and used it for mummification. Similarly, some Japanese monks followed the practice of nyujo, during which they starved and dehydrated themselves over a period of years. When the end seemed near, they would sit in a tomb in the lotus position, surrounded with salt or lime to further dry out their bodies. They would then chant and ring a bell. Once the sounds of life ceased, the other monks sealed the tomb. Years later, their mummified bodies would be “unburied”.

In Ancient Greece, slaves were traded for salt — which provides the rather ugly backstory for the phrase “not worth his salt”. The insanely high salt tax in France was one of the main reasons for the French Revolution. And Mahatma Gandhi’s Dandi march was a pivotal moment in our Independence movement.

Most religions, too, give salt a special status. The white crystals are supposed to provide protection against witches and demons – and are used in the exorcism water made by the Catholic church. But my favourite salt story is from the Old Testament — in which the Lord instructs Lot, his daughters and wife to flee the sinful kingdom of Sodom without a backward glance. Lot’s wife, who can’t stop herself from peeking, is instantly transformed into a pillar of salt.

Salt may no longer be used as currency or divine retribution, but it is still indispensable. A Chinese philosopher once remarked that salt was “the sweetest thing on earth”. And when I bite into a potato crisp scattered with salt, briny cucumbers, or a warm chapati topped with crunchy white flakes, I can only agree.


Loaded chocolate bark
  • (How does one choose a recipe involving salt? I pondered over this, and finally picked a recipe that introduces salt where we least expect it.)
  • Ingredients
  • 500g chocolate — dark or milk or a mix
  • 1 tsp instant coffee powder
  • 1/2 cup dried berries (cranberries, blueberries, whatever you have on hand)
  • 1 cup chopped nuts (cashew, macadamia, almond in any combination)
  • 1/2 tsp coarse sea salt
  • Method
  • 1 Line a 15-inch by 10-inch baking tray with greased butter paper.
  • 2 Melt chocolate in the microwave oven for 30 seconds, then stir. Repeat two or three times till fully melted and smooth. Stir in the coffee powder, salt and half the nuts and berries. Then spread on the tray.
  • 3 Top with remaining nuts and berries and sprinkle some more salt.
  • 4 Pop in the refrigerator till firm.
  • 5 Break into pieces and store in an airtight box.


Shabnam Minwalla is a journalist and author. Her latest book is What Maya Saw

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Published on July 26, 2019
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