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True to one’s own salt!

Many years ago, I chaired a session with Roger Moore at the HT Summit.

The hall was packed out and you could almost hear the James Bond theme being piped into the room. But, shortly before the session began, Moore told me that he would make a speech about salt.




Yups. It turned out he had only accepted our invitation so that he could talk about the importance of iodised salt. Ever since he hung up his Walther PPK, he had taken on a new mission. He worked with the UN to travel the world, telling people how iodised salt could save millions of lives.


   My heart sank. And sure enough, the speech, though noble, worthy and well-intentioned, put the hall to sleep. No memories of any epic battle with SPECTRE could keep them awake.


   But I had done my own deal with Moore. After he had finished talking about salt, he had agreed to do a conversation with me in which I could ask him about anything. So naturally, we talked about the Bond movies and the old smoothie went into his familiar cocked eyebrow, self-deprecating routine, and the hall suddenly woke up.


   Moore was no fool. He knew that people would fall asleep when he went on about the virtues of iodised salt. But he still believed that the speech had to be made.


   I asked him why he bothered.


   He replied that Audrey Hepburn, an old friend, had first asked him to help the UN spread the word and the more he travelled, the more he realised that if he could use his celebrity status to promote iodised salt, he would have achieved more than either Simon Templar or James Bond ever had.


   He did it all for free, and I couldn’t help admiring his sincerity and his selfless devotion to the cause.


   Afterwards, when people heard that I had anchored a session with Roger Moore, they all asked: “What did he talk about?”


   “Salt”, I would respond.


   And that would be the ultimate conversation killer.


   I thought back to Roger Moore and his campaign for iodised salt a few weeks ago when a foolish controversy broke out on Twitter about iodised salt. Normally, I am quite willing to see both sides of an argument. But in this case, there is no other side.


"Entire kingdoms have been won and lost on the basis of the salt trade. The term ‘salary’ comes from the Latin for salt, which was how Roman soldiers were paid." 

   All over the world, billions of people suffer from iodine deficiencies and therefore, from such diseases as goitre. In 1990, at the World Summit for Children, a goal was set to eliminate iodine deficiencies by 2020. The easiest way to do that was to add tiny quantities of iodine to table salt. Thanks to the efforts of people like Roger Moore, the campaign has been largely successful (though iodine deficiencies have not been completely eliminated). In 1990, 25 per cent of all households used iodised salt. By 2006, that figure had gone up to 60 per cent. And most salt sold in India is iodised.


   Even so, there is a lot of misinformation out there (and on social media) with people suggesting that we don’t need iodised salt and that iodine can cause AIDS. (I kid you not.)


   The controversy over iodised salt pales in comparison to the larger controversy over salt itself. If you have high blood pressure, your doctor will tell you to cut back on salt and one of the biggest criticisms of the packaged food industry is that it uses too much salt.


   Everyone knows that all animals need salt: without salt, we would die. But how much is enough? The WHO recommends that adults consume just under a teaspoon of salt a day. This is so severe a prescription as to be plain silly, No normal person actually consumes that little – and yet, here we are, alive and well (sort of).


   Twenty years ago, the American food writer Jeffrey Steingarten wrote a blistering critique of these recommendations. “Nearly everybody in the modern world,” he wrote, “eats between 1 to 2½ teaspoons a day.” There is no evidence that by cutting down this level of consumption or by adhering to the WHO’s recommendation, we would all be much healthier. As the Harvard Medical School Letter concluded, “It seems unlikely that salt intake is a major influence on the development of hypertension in most of the world’s populations.”


   This is not to suggest that we should all eat lots of salt. If you already have high blood pressure, then don’t eat too much salt. And too much of anything is bad for you: one reason why governments are cracking down on packaged foods that are full of salt. But equally, don’t buy into the salt-is-unhealthy mythology. Salt is not just healthy; it is essential.


   To focus only on the (largely overstated) dangers of salt is to ignore the role it has played in our history. Entire kingdoms have been won and lost on the basis of the salt trade. The term ‘salary’ comes from the Latin for salt, which was how Roman soldiers were paid. The French Revolution started out (in part) as a revolt against a Salt tax. And our freedom struggle was launched by Gandhiji’s Dandi March.


   And yet, considering how important salt has been in history (including our own), it is odd that we know so little about it. We know vaguely that there is rock salt and there is sea salt but we don’t realise that even rock salt started out as sea salt. It comes from dried-up prehistoric seas.


   Nor do we pay much attention to the various kinds of salt. Most Indian foodies are startled when Western chefs sing the praises of Himalayan pink salt. (I had to admit, shamefacedly, that I had no idea what it was). “But it is your Indian salt,” they say. “So perfect for putting on grilled fish!”




   Finally, I did some digging. It is not an Indian salt. It is Pakistani.


   The world’s second largest salt mines are in a place called Khewra in Pakistan. We know that they existed before the birth of Christ. The story goes that when Alexander the Great was passing through Khewra, his army decided to set up camp for the night. Alexander’s horses began licking the stones. This intrigued his soldiers, who discovered that the rocks were salty. They dug a little and found Khewra’s salt deposits, left over from a sea that vanished millions of years ago.


   The reason the salt is pink is because the rocks also contain iron deposits, which colour the salt. The iron (and other minerals) also contribute to its distinctive taste, which makes it such a favourite with chefs.


   Bizarrely, the one Himalayan salt that most Indians know is largely unknown in the rest of the world. We are familiar with kaala namak or black salt, an essential component of chaat masala. What we don’t realise is that it is not necessarily a natural salt.


   Traditionally, it was made from rock salt deposits found in the Himalayas. These were fired in a kiln with charcoal and spices to create that distinctive black colour.


   It isn’t always rock salt nowadays though. Sometimes, the raw material is salt from such lakes as Sambhar where the water is particularly salty. The firing process converts the sodium sulfide of the original salt into hydrogen sulfide. This takes up to 24 hours and the kaala namak is then rested for a while till it is ready for consumption.


   It isn’t all made the same way. Different ingredients, seeds and barks are added to the original salt by different manufacturers, which is why some kinds of kaala namak can differ from others.


   But no matter how it is made (and Haryana is a centre of production), the guys who sell it go to great lengths to hide the fact that it is not a natural salt carved out of a rock but a cooked salt with added flavour.


   The Pakistani pink salt and our own kaala namak are not sea salts. Most trendy salts in the West, however, come from the sea and depend on texture for their uniqueness. In the UK, the semi-industrial Maldon operation relies on a way of extracting salt from sea water that yields salt-flakes rather than powder. The flavour is fine but Maldon is a finishing salt, put at the end, rather than a cooking salt used in stews or gravies.


   More famous and more expensive is the artisanal French sea salt known as fleur de sel, which is also a finishing salt consisting of fine crystals. They can only make 2 kg of fleur de sel a day and only 300 men have the skills required to make it.


   Claims are made about fleur de sel’s taste, but I reckon it is the texture that makes it special. Unless salt has added ingredients (like our kaala namak), it rarely tastes very different when it is dissolved in water. Hawaiian salt, for instance, has a distinctive taste only because it is mixed with red clay.


   And finally, the big question: does the salt you use make a difference to Indian food? I don’t think it makes much difference unless you use it for finishing or for chaat masala. But then, on the other hand, you have the example of Manish Mehrotra, who rejects all the fancy salts of the world at the New York Indian Accent and imports our very own Tata Salt, arguing that Indian food doesn’t taste right without it.


   Sometimes one has to be true to one’s own salt!



Posted On: 05 Oct 2019 01:07 PM
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