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Hemant Oberoi
Hemant Oberoi

CHEF'S CHOICE

The salt of life

A pinch of history A pinch of history: Salt has always been an intrinsic part of human culture.

The sea has always been a mystery. Millions of years have passed and no one has really understood its beauty. So many people travel by sea and thousands of kilometres of cables have been laid along its floor. The colour and quality of its water change from coast to coast. An unselfish resource, it gives oil and gas, seafood (tonnes of it every day) and, of course, the main ingredients of life—water (after desalination) and salt.

Today, salt is produced across the world through processes like deep-shaft mining, solution mining and solar evaporation. However, its history dates back to more than 6,000 years ago when the people of Romania boiled sea and lake water to produce salt. Centuries ago, salt mines were found in China and Austria. In fact, Austria promotes it as a tourist attraction these days. In the old days, the British used to get salt by boiling sea water on open fires. The Romans did the same, but they used lead-lined pans to do it.

In the Roman era, roads were built to transport salt. In fact, one such route was from the Adriatic Sea to Rome. The word ‘salary’ is derived from the latin word salarium, which was the allowance paid to the Roman soldiers to buy salt, an essential but expensive commodity.

China and the US are the world’s largest producers of salt today. But there are other places that are known for producing high quality salt like Bolivia, the Dead Sea in Israel, the underground mines in Poland and the Thar region in India. The city Halle, which has a historic connection with salt harvesting, in Germany got its name from the Indo-German name for salt.

Salt has always been an intrinsic part of human culture. It is an essential food element not only for humans, but also for animals and plants. Sometimes, you wonder what life and food would have been without salt. It is now being used in medicines, food preservation and in so many different ways.

In the 21st century, salt has acquired a totally different meaning, especially in the culinary world. Cuisines are being developed on the basis of the salts available across the globe. Today, you may come across kosher salt (which caters to the Jewish faith and laws, and has been cleared by the orthodox union). Another variety is the Himalayan salt that is pure, hand-mined and obtained from the Himalayan mountains. You could get it in blocks, crystals and grain textures.

Salt blocks are today used as a bed for serving sushi and it could be frozen to -30 degrees Celsius or put in the oven. Fleur de sel or the flower of salt is a type of hand-harvested salt that is collected from the salt ponds in Brittany, France. It is quite expensive because from 40kg mass extracted, one gets only 1.5kg of salt. Maldon salt, which is popular among chefs because of its pure white flakes, has been produced in England since 19th century by Cyril Osborne and his family. The Hawaiian salt, called Alaea, is harvested off the island of Molokai and is used for roasting, grilling and preparing traditional dishes like jerky and poke.

One could also get salt that is flavoured with chillies from around the world like bhut jolokia from India, and chipotle, habanero and jalapeno from Mexico. And, then you have salts in flavours like curry, porcini, sun-dried tomatoes, truffle, lemon, garlic, kaffir lime, vanilla beans, merlot, maple, saffron and so on.

Today, one could create salt and use it as an enhancer or additive for food like soup, stew, fries, cheese, poached and scrambled eggs, tempuras, and even pop corn.

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