In my early teens, I suffered from a chronic skin condition that just couldn’t be cured by Allopathy. Finally, my parents took me to a traditional medical practitioner, who treated me for six months, at the end of which I was completely cured. But for those six months I was restricted to a strict salt free, spice free, tamarind free and oil free diet. It was then that I realised the value of salt and the flavour enhancement it provides to food.
Salt is what gives life to food. We take it for granted and just add some salt into our cooking. But serious chefs and gastronomy experts take great care and use different salts for different dishes because salt can make or break a dish. In Japan there are 4000+ different types of salt, one of the most expensive being the Moshio salt (made from seawater and seaweed) that is available in India about 4,000₹ for 300 gms! Morocco has the Salt Road (like Silk Road in China) where the Atlas mountains, rich in salt rocks provide a unique salt that has been traded for many centuries. In India, Gujarat is the largest producer of salt. Tamil Nadu produces salt from seawater. The Himalayan pink salt is a much sought after salt, worldwide. Different salts have varying sizes of crystal, levels of saltiness, mineral content, underlying aromas and so on. We, in India use a few types of salt in our cooking.
Himalayan pink salt (indu uppu) – a rock salt that has a pinkish hue due to the presence of minerals.
Black rock salt (Kala namak) – a rock salt with a pungent, sulphurous odour and is used extensively in chats and North Indian cooking.
Iodised white salt – a table salt with mixed with other salts of iodine. Prevents thyroid problems and goitre.
Sea salt – produced by evaporation of sea water and uses in cooking, seasoning and preserving of foods.
Sendha salt – a type of rock salt used extensively in Ayurveda.
Salt has been known to mankind for thousands and thousands of years. Known as लवणं in Sanskrit, mention of salt is found in our Upanishads also. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad says;
स यथा सैन्दवखिल्य उदके प्रास्त उदकमेवानुविलीयेत
न हास्योद्ग्रहणायेव स्यात्, यतो यतस्त्वाददीत लवणमेव,
एवं वा अर इदम् महद्भूतमनन्तमपारम् विज्ञानघन ऐव ।
A lump of salt dropped in some water dissolves and cannot be seen separately or even separated from the water. Even though it cannot be seen separately from the water, it doesn’t mean it is not there as the water tastes salty. Similarly, the self or atma when it ultimately merges with the Supreme Reality, cannot be identified separately but becomes one with the Supreme.
When salt is added to food, there is an optimum amount that should be added and this comes with experience. I always salt to taste, regardless of what a recipe says. With different salts, different amounts would be needed. Once added to food, it cannot be separated from the food. Therefore, it should be added judiciously. My mother used to have this traditional ceramic jar – ஜாடி (with a broken lid) for salt and she would always add salt using her fingers. No spoons or measurements for her as it was always by intuition as is the way of most good cooks. There are two important aspects to salt as it pertains to food. 1. When do you add salt during the cooking process and 2. What does it do to the food.
WHEN TO ADD SALT
This will vary depending on what is being cooked. I normally add salt at different stages of cooking. If it is a dish of many components, it is a good idea to add salt to the different components separately as they are being cooked. Pulav and pasta would need a little salt in the cooking water so it gets absorbed by the rice or pasta. Adding salt at the end will only give a surface coating of salt that will only add saltiness, not flavour. Unless it is a soup, salad or sautéed vegetables, then it can be added at the end.
WHAT SALT DOES TO FOOD
Other than adding flavour to the food, salt does other things also. Whenever I make bitter gourd, I boil it in salt water as this reduces the bitterness. Similarly there are coffee connoisseurs who add a pinch of salt to the grounds to reduce its bitterness. Salt tones down the heat if there is excess chilli, can be used to tone down the tartness if there is an excess. Salt also enhances certain flavours, for eg. peanut butter, which tastes so much better with salt. A pinch of salt is even added to chocolates, cakes and sweets to enhance the flavour and sweetness.
Salt when added to bread, diminishes the effect of the yeast in bread making and thus affects the texture of the bread.
As a preservative all our pickles, dried vegetable வத்தல் (vathal), வடாம் (vadaam) and அப்பளம் (appalaam) are salted so that it helps with taste and a longer shelf life. Salt dehydrates and provides an atmosphere not favourable to bacteria. நார்த்தங்காய் (kaffir lime) pickle is nothing but kaffir lime and salt and yet is so flavoursome and can be preserved for years with salt alone.
Salt provides us with sodium which is vital for the effective functioning of body and iodised salt also provides the iodine to prevent thyroid problems and goitre. People with certain health issues are of course advised by their physicians to reduce their salt intake.
The Latin name for salt is sal or salis and it is said that the word salary came from the Latin name. Salt was used as a trading commodity and was used to buy and sell slaves. It is said that Roman soldiers were paid partly with salt. And the word soldier is also said to have been derived from sal daire (to give salt). A much sought after commodity, we all know of the Salt March (Dandi March) led by Gandhiji in our own country to protest against the levy of heavy taxes on salt by the British.
Salt has many uses in the kitchen other than just for flavouring food. Stove top baking of cakes and bread can be done by spreading a layer of salt in the baking container to distribute heat evenly. Many of our street vendors use salt for roasting peanuts, corn and I use it at home for even making papad without using oil. As a cleaning agent it is unparalleled. A little bit of salt, vinegar and any flour makes your silver and copper vessels sparkle. Other uses include stain removing, preventing browning of fruits, as a disinfectant for sores, for gargling, even in tooth powder and many more.
Salt is used to ward off the evil eye (சுத்தி போடரது, नज़र उतारना). Offering of salt and jaggery is done at the temple tank of Vaitheeswaran temple and offering of salt and pepper at the Veeraraghava perumal temple as this is believed to get rid of ailments. At the Uppiliappan temple in Kumbakonam all prasadam is made without salt. The Sthala Puranam for this temple goes as follows. Sage Markandeya found a baby girl under a Tulasi plant and brought up and she was none other than Mahalakshmi. Mahavishnu, in the guise of an old man cane and asked for her hand in marriage, whereupon the sage said that she was too young and would not even know how much salt to add to the food she cooked. The old man said he would eat food without salt so she would have no problems. Realising that the old man was none other than Mahavishnu, the sage got them married. The Dhyana slokam for this temple is:
He is adorned with yellow silk, as beautiful as crores of rising suns and moons. He, who is beautiful and dark like a cloud, with his luminous and majestic face, is adorned with different ornaments. With abounding grace and elegance, the one who has given up salt for his beloved Lakshmi, holding the chakram and the conch, oh Lord of Vaikunta, consort of Bhooma Devi, I take refuge in Thee.
नानाभूषणभूषितं नवघनश्यामं प्रसन्नाननं
लावण्याम्बुनिधिं निरस्तलवणं श्री शंखचक्रांचितं
श्री वैकुण्ठपुराधिपं शुभतनुं भूम्या: पतिं संश्रये