Samui Wining & Dining
A Pinch of Salt

We all take it for granted – but salt is one essential we’ve had to work at!

8-(1)Today salt is common, easy to find, and cheap. But now that we have so much of it, experts are telling us that it’s bad for us. Maybe they are right. But, either way, all of us have long-since forgotten that, right from the beginning of civilization, until only about 100 years ago, salt was one of the most sought-after commodities in human history. It provided the sodium that we need to stabilise our blood and regulate our metabolisms – and so much more besides. So what’s going on? What’s changed? What’s the truth about salt?

Well, a lot of it is all connected with our lifestyle and diet today – which I’ll dip into in more detail in a moment. But keep in mind that it’s only in the last 20 years or so that we’ve become globally health conscious. We’ve had to. But, going back to the time of Christ, life was different. Most people walked everywhere and were continually active. Food was always fresh; there were few ways to preserve it, and chemical additives hadn’t yet been invented. (However, just about the only way to preserve fish and meat was to store it in salt!) Vegetables provided most of our vitamins and some of our essential electrolytes. But the one thing that was known to be essential was salt. This alone provided the sodium we needed for maintaining a fluid balance and preserving our nerve and muscle structure. And because of this, and its preservative properties, salt became a prized commodity.

The first recorded evidence came with the ancient Mayans who, 2,000 years before Christ, had perfected a way to extract salt from seawater. A thousand years later, the Aztecs discovered natural deposits of salt in the ground and began to mine it. Salt routes then began to crisscross the globe. Ships bearing salt from Egypt to Greece traversed the Mediterranean and the Aegean. Venice’s wealth was based not on exotic spices themselves,

but everyday salt, which was then exchanged for the spices of Asia. The Roman army at one time paid their soldiers in salt. In 1295, when he first returned from Cathay, Marco Polo told stories of salt coins bearing the seal of Genghis Khan. American pioneers planned their wagon trails via salt lakes and mines. And, even today, camel caravans still form the same ‘salt trains’ across the Sahara as they first did hundreds of years ago.

But all these examples have one thing in common. They were all in pursuit of natural salt. This has always been scarce, hence its ongoing value. In its natural state, it contains 84 different minerals and trace elements, including that essential sodium. However, not only is it hard to find, but it also soaks up moisture in the air and clumps together, making it hard to sprinkle on food. As it happens, both these problems were solved at a stroke in the early 1920s, when ‘artificial’ salt began to appear. Seawater processing plants first treated the brine with chemicals to remove the minerals (which were then sold for use in industry). Usually the chemicals used to treat salt included sulphuric acid or chlorine. Then the water was evaporated under high compression and heat (which also broke up the molecular structure of the salt). Finally, almost all of the moisture in the salt was removed in a fluidised-bed dryer, and anti-clumping agents were added, such as calcium phosphate. The end result was what was generally called ‘refined table salt’. And the process is still the same today.

Yes, it’s essentially all sodium chloride, but with the additives being silicon dioxide, calcium silicate, corn sugar, iodine, aluminium silicate and others, all of these acting as agents to allow for easy pouring. This kind of salt is bitter to the taste and nearly all of it is used by industry in the production of cosmetics, fertilisers and plastics. Fair enough! But unfortunately, the remaining 10% of this chemical collage ends up on supermarket shelves and upon restaurant tables. It’s tempting, as it’s so cheap. And, really, it will do you no harm at all. But salt is like bread and rice. You can buy all of these things mass-produced and with most of the nourishment thus removed. Or you can get the real thing with all the natural ingredients still in place, but at the added cost of being labour intensive. It all depends on your purchasing power, I suppose.

But here’s the strange thing today. Now experts are telling us all to cut down on our salt. You see, back in the 1970s and 1980s our work and lifestyles began to change. More and more people spent their days tied to a desk in sedentary jobs. Plus the fact that now both partners in a marriage were going out to work all day. So, at the same time, eating patterns began to change, with processed food and ready-meals replacing home cooking. The lack of exercise and the poor diet (processed foods usually contain high levels of fat and salt) caused a lot of concern, and that in turn generated an eruption of media reaction. And entire nations all suddenly became health and diet conscious, almost overnight. But, no, you don’t need to cut down on your salt (or your fat, for that matter). Although you do need regular daily exercise and the balance of a healthy diet. And that includes salt.

There are really only two kinds of natural salt, sea salt and rock salt. Sea salts vary considerably, with each having a unique taste, and being prized in different cuisines or for different applications. Rock salts can also possess unique gourmet qualities, depending on the nature of the long-vanished underground sea from whence they came.

But it’s all back to balance, again. In a first-world country our diet is generally good enough so that we’re getting as much salt as we need from this alone. Hence the warnings to cut back on salt, as too much of it causes high blood pressure. With developing nations, the dietary advice is just the opposite! And, anyway, every year new experts are telling us something different. There’s so much conflicting health advice that, really, all in all, it’s best just taken with a pinch of salt!


Rob De Wet


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