Now for a bit of salt, said the friend, as he placed a plate of freshly boiled prawns in front of us. He sprinkled over it a few grains of fleur de sel — or flower of salt — that had come all the way from Guérande in France. The salt had a hint of a flowery aroma, and it infused the prawns with a light flavour that was as fragrant as it was tasty.
- Fish (a whole small betki, or 1 kg
- any fish with one central bone)
- Sea salt 1½ kg
- Water ½ cup
- Rosemary A few sprigs
- Thyme A few sprigs
- Juice of one lemon
- Olive oil
Gut the fish and clean it well. Pat it dry. Pre-heat the oven to 400ºF (nearly 200º C). Line a baking tray with aluminium foil. Put the salt in a bowl, and mix with water. The salt should have a wet sand-like consistency. Place half the wet salt and half the herbs on the foil. Put the fish there, and then add the remaining half of the wet salt and herbs on top of the fish. Coat it completely with the herbed salt. Bake for 30-35 minutes. Take it out of the oven, and crack the salt crust. Remove the outer skin of the fish. Cut open the fish, and remove the bone. Add olive oil, lemon juice, and a pinch of salt. Serve with crusty bread and a green salad.
There is really so much to be said about salt. But the mineral, sadly, has got some bad press. ‘Lower your salt intake’ is a constant refrain, and while I fully understand the need for that, it must also be recalled that salt has enormous uses. It is, for one, seen as a symbol of loyalty. ‘Sahib, mainey aap ka namak khaya hai (Sir, I’ve had your salt)’ was a phrase that used to often crop up in Hindi films — implying that the speaker owed allegiance to the Sahib. It is also a symbol of fertility, and plays an important role in many wedding rites.
What interests me, though, is the use of salt in food. I don’t mean the usual recipe instruction — ‘salt to taste’ — but dishes that revel in the use of salt. Some years ago, I had the most sublime dish of a whole fish that had been baked after being coated thickly with salt. When done, the salt formed a crust around it. We broke that, and the fish within was soft and moist — and delicious, with just a salty aftertaste. There are dishes named after salt, too. We all know our namak pare — fried and salted flour ribbons. Another popular dish is namak gosht, or namkeen gosht, in which the dish is cooked with just a few spices, but with adequate salt.
Put too much salt in food, or too little, and it ruins the taste. I just heard about a young man who complained to his mother that the low-salt food she cooked for him reminded him of his hostel fare. A French lore mentions a king who doted on his daughter, and asked her how much she loved him. As much as salt, she replied. He was hurt (and kept her chained in the basement, no doubt, as kings tend to!). Then, of course, he had food without salt one day, and realised how much he was loved.
It’s hard to imagine that salt, so easily available now, was one of the most sought-after commodities even a 100 years ago. Salt in prehistoric times was used essentially for preserving food, and over time, emerged as a precious commodity. The word salary, in fact, comes from the Anglo-Norman French word salarie, derived from the Latin salarium, which denoted a Roman soldier’s allowance to buy sal or salt.
The use of salt has evolved in recent times. Chefs have been working on different kinds of salts, and studying how they enhance flavours and tastes. An enterprising chef once told me how he added Hawaiian black lava salt and red volcanic salt to something mildly sweet like duck meat, and the somewhat sweet Persian blue salt to fish or other delicate ingredients. The granules stay on the tongue, adding magic to food. Others have added herbs to salt for varying flavours. I have eaten some memorable dishes cooked with salt infused with rosemary and oregano, and basil and sweet peppers.
But even just our basic salt enriches food. Ask the macaques of Japan. Adding salt to food is believed to be specifically a human act, but a study by Japanese scholar Masao Kawai in the ’60s found that the primates ate potatoes dipped not in fresh water but salt water, presumably for the enhanced taste.
The history of salt is fascinating. It was being produced in China in 6,000 BC, and the earliest written reference is from 800 BC. Some interesting tidbits about salt can be found in Mark Kurlansky’s most illuminating book, ‘Salt: A World History’. He writes that Homer called it a divine substance, while Plato believed it was dear to the gods.
There is, indeed, nothing quite common about the common salt.
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