Recently I was looking into the matter of salt (as one does). Salt is a mineral made mostly of sodium chloride, and in its crystalline state is also known as rock salt or halite. It is essential for life in general, is present in our oceans, and is one of our five basic tastes (sweet, sour, bitter, umami and salty). As a spice, it is the oldest in the world; gathered along dried seashores from evaporated tidal pools, hunter-gatherers soon learned to value it. Even as far back as 6000 BC, intentional salt production (by boiling or evaporating seawater) was around. Since ancient times, it has been used as a seasoning, a preservative (whether air-drying in salt or through the brining process), a disinfectant, a unit of exchange, and ceremonial uses. Newborn babies were rubbed with salt to disinfect them (see Ezekiel 16:4 as an example of this ancient practice).
The word brings quite a few things to mind, from culinary to military to spiritual: One speaks of seasoned soldiers – those who’ve seen action and have learned how to respond rightly in a crisis. Roman soldiers were given an allowance for the purchase of salt; it’s where we get the word salary (salarius – Latin, pertaining to salt), and worth one’s salt is thought to come from that concept of the Roman soldier’s payment. The phrase above salt, referring to someone high in rank or honour, came from the seating position that a person would be invited to take at a dinner party – the salt being placed in the middle of the long dining table; the more honoured a guest, the closer they sat to the host at the head of the table, above salt (used as far back as AD 1200 in that context).
Salt preserves and adds flavour by bringing out the full bouquet of flavour within the thing it’s added to. It enhances a sweet melon or a savoury slice of meat. Seasoned just right, even a lowly carrot or potato can become an explosion of taste. In Colossians 4:6, the apostle Paul uses this culinary metaphor: “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” Applying the qualities of salt to our speech, let it always be full of good taste, preserving the honour of those with and about whom we speak, bringing out their potential, enhancing them. Such speech is applicable in every situation; such a reply is never wrong. How we say something is at least as important as what we say; that’s the salt of the matter. Salt was also used by ancient armies to symbolically curse the fields of a conquered area (it is erroneously thought that the salt was sown to make the land unproductive, but it would take a prohibitive amount of salt to accomplish that, so it’s logically rather a symbolic than literal salting).
Salt also gives us several more idioms than those mentioned above:
- To take something with a grain of salt – from Modern Latin, cum grano salis. It means not to believe something at face value, or take something completely seriously.
- (To go) back to the salt mines – (To go) back to work
- To rub salt in (someone’s) wound – To make someone’s problem or bad situation worse
- Salt of the earth – a good, honest, upright person
- To salt (something) away – To save money or other item for another time or purpose
- Salty dog – An experienced sailor (nickname due to the salinity of the sea)
Today, most countries have a wide variety of salt available: The typical salt in western societies is called “table salt”, and it has been iodized with iodine since 1924, to correct the deficiency of iodine in the average diet. The deficiency can lead to thyroid problems in adults and cretinism in children. Another mineral sometimes added is fluoride, to prevent tooth decay. The additives vary from country to country, which may also add to the variety and regional differences in taste.
Sea Salt is just that – from the sea, including traces of algae, salt-resistant bacteria and also sediment impurities.
Bamboo Salt (Jukyeom) is prepared by roasting salt in a bamboo container plugged with mud at both ends; it absorbs minerals from the bamboo and the mud, which in turn adds a distinct flavour to the salt.
Celtic Sea Salt, also known as grey salt (from French, sel gris), is harvested by raking salt crystals off of the bottom of tidal pools along the coast of France. It’s got a distinctive briny flavour.
Fluer de Sel (Flower salt), is another tidal salt from France, but its crystals are paper-thin flakes taken from the water’s surface. Because of the labour-intensive harvesting, it’s known as the “caviar of salts” as it is the most expensive salt on the market (1 pound of salt can be $20). Any salt harvested from the water’s surface creates flakes, so there are less expensive varieties available.
Kosher, or kitchen, salt is coarse-grained and non-iodized and used for things like cooking or pretzel-making.
Pickling salt has a very fine grain to speed up the dissolving process in cooking or brining.
Gourmet salts often have other spices or elements added or infused into the salt grains.
Kala namak (Nepalese for black salt) is a Himalayan salt that’s been packed into a container with charcoal, herbs, seeds and bark, then fired in a furnace for a full day before it’s cooled, stored and aged. This process gives it a distinctive reddish-black colour, a pungent, salty taste and the faint sulphurous aroma of eggs, which lends vegan dishes the taste of egg.
Pink Himalayan Salt is rock salt mined in the Salt Range mountains of the Punjab region of Pakistan, and the colour comes from trace impurities found in the soil, ranging from transparent to beet-red. It is comparable to table salt in taste, though it lacks the health benefits of the latter. This salt is especially popular as it is erroneously purported to have special health benefits for everything from reducing ageing, clearing up sinus problems, to increasing bone strength and even more dangerous presumptions – a modern-day snake oil medicine. It is fine as a supplement to, but not a replacement of, our salt intake.
Hawaiian Black Lava Salt is a sea salt harvested from the volcanic islands of Hawaii, and it gets its deep, black colour from the additive of activated charcoal. Alaea Salt is an unrefined red Hawaiian salt; its colour comes from the reddish, iron-rich volcanic clay called alaea, and it adds a robust flavour.
Persian Blue Diamond Salt is extracted from salt mines in the Semman province of ancient Persia (now Iran). Mineral deposits add small flecks of blue to some of the crystals, giving it its name.
Smoked Salt is slow-smoked up to two weeks over a wood fire of hickory, mesquite, apple, oak or alder wood, and it adds a smoky flavour to dishes.
Cyprus Black Lava Salt comes from the Mediterranean Sea. These crystals are formed through natural evaporation; mixed with activated charcoal, the grains look like miniature pieces of charcoal and have a very mild salt flavour.
Red Wine Salt comes from France (where else?); I have one called Fleur de Merlot. It is a coarse-grained salt mixed with wine and then allowed to evaporate, infusing the salt grains with a dark red wine flavour. It goes well with robust flavours with which you might serve Merlot wine.
New Zealand Lake Grassmere Salt: Seawater from the deep is brought to seaside ponds surrounding Lake Grassmere in New Zealand, and at the end of the summer, salt crusts are lifted from the bottom of the ponds.
In some cultures, salt is not a staple condiment, replaced instead by high-sodium ingredients that fulfil the function of salt: Soy sauce, fish sauce, or oyster sauce, to name a few. I cook a variety of dishes, and all of these have their place in my kitchen; you can’t cook an authentic-tasting Asian meal without them.
There are probably thousands of types of salt in the world; each one has its own distinct colours and flavours due to the mineral deposits that seep into the water before or during the evaporation process, or because of additives such as wine, crushed tequila worms, rosebuds or herbs.
Because salt is used as a preservative, many processed foods include it. Over-consumption of salt can lead to health problems – just think of a salt-brined fish, and apply that principle to your organs to get an idea of what happens. I use processed foods sparingly – mainly things I cannot process myself, such as canned tuna. Be aware also of the amount of salt included in spice mixtures; it is hidden in most pre-made items (unless sugar is used as the preservative – but that’s another story). The best way to control your salt intake in a day is to eat fresh fruits and vegetables, and make things like spice mixtures and batters from scratch – that way you’ll know exactly what you’re putting into your body!
The next time you reach for the salt, pause a moment and consider where it came from: It could be from the ocean or from a salt mine deep in the earth; it could be from a tidal pool bottom or top or the scum of a pond. It could have intentional additives or random mineral impurities that add to its flavour. Even the humble salt crystal, when seen under a microscope (below), takes on a grandeur that has the thumbprints of a grand Designer.