Prized in ancient times but often taken for granted today, the simplest of seasonings comes in dozens of flavors that can enhance most any dish, even dessert
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jun 23, 2010
LAST UPDATED: 11:55 p.m. HST, Jun 23, 2010
Most folks have definite opinions about seasoning their food - a favorite herb for this or chili for that. To mayo a sandwich or not is almost guaranteed to spark a debate. But take a poll on salt, and you'll likely be met with a long, blank look and the words, "Salt is salt."
That most basic of flavor boosters, salt is so ubiquitous today it barely registers a thought. Just grab the shaker, give a couple of wrist flicks and move on. It's ironic that salt has become an afterthought, when throughout history the substance has held such monumental value to the human race.
"Salt got us through evolution," says Naomi Kanehiro, a community nutritionist from the University of Hawaii. "Man would have died from food poisoning, or had no food at all during certain times of the year, if they weren't able to salt their food."
In fact, according to the Salt Works website (www.saltworks.us), salt is the most effective of all food preservatives. It's even been used on mummies.
Salt has been present throughout the ages in the commerce, economics, politics, traditions and religions of virtually every culture:
» In the Jewish and Shinto religious traditions, salt symbolizes purity.
» Marco Polo was said to have seen salt pressed into coins and used as currency in Tibet.
» In West Africa, a trade route for the "gold of the Sahara desert" flourished in the Middle Ages, and the salt caravans continue today.
» New cities arose due to the production and transport of salt; one such city was Salzburg ("Salt Castle") in Austria, site of a salt mine.
WHEN IT COMES to the culinary experience, it turns out that salt is not just salt. And it doesn't take a gourmet palate to taste the nuances, just a willingness to pay attention.
In a couple of recent, informal tastings, several dozen average folks - home cooks, noncooks and foodies, office workers, journalists, teachers, students, a park director and computer tech - proved that point.
All were presented with a dozen different salts to taste, among them the commonest of table salt, Hawaii sea salts embellished with alaea (red clay) and charcoal, one dried from deep seawater off Kona, a fine-grain Mediterranean sea salt and a pricey French finishing sea salt called Fleur de Sel. While opinions varied on degrees of saltiness and best taste, all who participated could make out differences in flavor.
Many could taste the earthiness in alaea salt, for instance, the ocean flavor of the Kona salt and the sweetness of Fleur de Sel.
This comes as no surprise to George Mavrothalassitis, owner and executive chef of Chef Mavro, who uses dozens of salts in his gourmet dishes.
"The last touch of the recipe is deciding on the salt," he says. "It's an emotional, instinctive decision. It's about first impressions. This is not intellectual."
The charcoal salts, for instance, are best with grilled food to bring out the smoky flavor, he says, while Fleur de Sel puts the finishing touch on foie gras, caramel and even vanilla ice cream.
Mavrothalassitis explains that the function of salt is to enhance the flavor of the food, which is why it takes different salts to season different dishes.
He illustrates the concept with the way he approaches all his ingredients.
"When you look at a flavor, it's all emotional. Take the Okinawan sweet potato. You eat it, and what comes to mind? I tasted it and thought, 'Vanilla!' So I added a tiny bit of vanilla in my dish, and it boosted the sweet potato taste 10 times!
"You can enhance every single flavor. The carrot - you can use parsley, ginger, saffron and cumin to enhance the carrot," he says.
Mavrothalassitis recommends sea salts. His salt for everyday home cooking is Baleine, a fine-grain Mediterranean sea salt on the shelves at Safeway (about $5 for 26.5 ounces) in a larger shaker container. Though relatively economical compared with Fleur de Sel ($13.79 for 4.4 ounces at R. Field Wine Co.) or gourmet Hawaii sea salts (starting at about $5.50 per several ounces), the chef says he uses Baleine strictly to season food itself. To boil water for pasta, he employs good old Hawaiian salt, sold for a couple dollars in Hawaii markets everywhere.
He considers inexpensive table salt taboo. The added chemicals, he says, affect not only taste, but healthfulness as well.
AS FOR HEALTH IMPACT, Kanehiro says it comes down to salt's components. Salt is made up of sodium and chloride, and both are necessary to maintaining a healthy body. According to the Salt Institute (www.saltinstitute.org), sodium aids the passage of nutrients into cells, while chloride supports muscular activity. Both help with the maintenance of blood pressure.
When people are told to regulate their salt intake, the issue usually centers on sodium, says Kanehiro.
"The thing is, that includes anything with sodium in it, not just salt. For example, there's baking soda - the 'soda' indicates the salt - and drinks with sodium," she says.
"Whether it's red alaea or smoked salt or anything else, you're still dealing with sodium chloride."
The recommended daily amount of salt, per 2,000- to 2,700-calorie intake, is two teaspoons a day, she says.
That's inclusive of everything you consume. Before you can even get to thinking about the shoyu on the rice, remember that piece of beef jerky or bag of chips.
"You can get 10 tablespoons of sodium just by eating packaged foods like saimin," she warns. "That's why it's best to eat fresh, whole foods."
But before you throw your hands up in despair, here's a bit more from Mavrothalassitis to warrant a visit to the farmers market:
"What salt does is enhance the flavor of food," he reminds. "You don't need a lot, just a sprinkle."