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A recipe for conserving cultures

charqui crab1 crab3 capperi fiore moon rituale saltart scylla bacalhau1 bacalhau2 boat

In the salt mines I saw the salt in this shaker. I know you won't believe me. But there it sings. The salt sings. The skin of the salt mines sings with a mouth choking on dirt. Alone, when I heard the voice of salt, I trembled in the empty desert near Antofagasta. The whole salted plain shouts out in its cracked voice a pitiful song. Then in its caverns, jewels of rock salt, a mountain of light buried under earth, transparent cathedral, crystal of the sea, oblivion of the waves. And now, on each table of the world, your agile essence, salt, spreading a vital luster on our food. Preserver of the ancient stores in the holds of ships. You were the explorer of the seas, matter foretold in the secret half-open trails of foam. Dust of water, the tongue receives through you a kiss from the marine night. Taste melds your oceanity into each rich morsel. And thus the least wave of the salt shaker teaches us not merely domestic purity, but also the essential flavor of the infinite.'
– Pablo Neruda, Ode to Salt 1

In the process of it all, I found you

Much like charqui, my research is tough like dry meat; created at different altitudes, using different methods of preparation.
My heritage that is fermenting through generations, obtaining a cross of (bacterial) cultures, molding a new strain packed with ancient knowledge. One that can’t be sure where its origin lies, bubbling until it is ready to reveal its new flavor. A cloudy brine that conserves the herbs and spices taken from the old trade routes. Mason jars of memories conserved in the storage in my head, ready to be opened through the firm rotation of my hand and with curiosity of biting into its firm consistency. Within the practices of drying, fermenting and pickling there is one thing that binds them. The main ingredient salt, and I am here to document it. I will look into; How salt, through its conservational qualities in food preparation can be used to connect and preserve the ties to our ancestry.



The common, precious Salt

There is art in the movements of cooking. The elegance of friction between thumb, index, and middle finger evenly and so precise spreading translucent grains over a bubbling dish.
The petite kitchens in the Netherlands remind me so often of a cage, with no means of letting the body and soul expand. Food is simply a means to survive; a task carried on for the purpose of consumption and not to be seen as practice of reconnecting with one’s body. Reconnection with one’s body can be considered an art of healing. There is movement and companionship in cooking. Small kitchens are nothing but a hindrance to what is supposed to be a place in which people come together and reconnect. It excludes the experience of families and friends who come together through the process of food making.
Every culture carries an abundance of history. Entangled in their recipes, concealed within their dishes: ingredients, flavours, and preparations are particular to a place and time. And just as a memory, at risk to be forgotten. Like the story of salt.
My parents would regularly sit on my bedside in the evening before they would kiss me off to sleep and would tell me the stories they heard during their own childhood. One of my favourites stories, was the one my mother would tell me about the king and the salt.

The story starts as many others. In a faraway kingdom with a king and his three beautiful daughters. The king bored and insecure one day, called his daughters to the throne to put them under a test. “How much do you love me?”, he asked them. The eldest daughter replied: “I love you as much as the treasures of gold you bring me from far away islands.”, satisfied with her answer he moved on to the middle child, which responded with an answer as satisfying as the first one: “I love you as much as the clearest crystal you gifted me from the deepest of all oceans”. Finally, he turned to his youngest daughter with the same question: “I love you as much as the salt we put on our food.” The answer of the youngest infuriated the king. “How can you say something such as this. Salt is cheap and has no worth!”, with these words he banished his youngest daughter from his kingdom.
Years passed by when suddenly the king received an invitation of the neighbouring kingdom to attend the wedding of the prince. The day of the wedding arrived which the king attended. After the ceremony, as the food started to arrive to the tables and the king longing to fill his empty stomach, took a bite out of the turkey served in front of him. “But this meat is tasteless! Completely bland!“, he called out. He hoped the next served dish would be better, but with each bite he took he was reminded of his act of injustice. Saddened with the memories of his banished daughter, he made his way to the prince and bride to thank them until he stood in front of them.
“I hope you learned your lesson father”, the beautiful bride, his daughter revealed herself in front of him. They made up and lived happily ever after.
2 The story was written by Italo Calvino, an Italian writer, who retold the story from ancient folktales which knew exactly the importance of salt. White gold, it was named in the past. Its value was so high that people would get paid in this digestible currency and it is the linguistic origin of the word ‘salary’.

Salt is the key element of conservation. Brine-pools found in nature kill any creature living in aerobic environments and when falling in to such a pool, its present state of being is conserved entirety. Human mummies found in the salt desert of Atacama have been preserved for centuries without any signs of decay. When enough salt is introduced in the food environment, the bacteria responsible for generating the “bad” mold becomes isolated and has almost no access to the living matter. In its place, the good bacteria, which are mostly resistant to salt, can continue to grow.

crab1 crab3

With one strip of Charqui from the Andes I vow not to forget you

A soft tingle calls me to a faraway land. A land which culture I’d love to call mine but fail to find the answers of belonging, which confuses me ever so often. I belong everywhere and nowhere. The chameleon who changes clothing, manners, tone of voice and movements to fit in. Behind the mask there is another and another and another.
The breeze of the arid environment, the warmth of the last sunrays that sets above the San Pedro de Atacama.
This lingering question creeps in again and brings me back to reality. I slap my hand down the wooden table. “My culture is whatever I used to cooked in the past, what I cook today and what I will cook tomorrow.” The flavours of distinct cultures that come to hug me like my did grandmother when I was a child. These flavours that carry and remember me throughout my life.
In my mind passes the bus I used to sit in. The hourlong ride we took, the little breaks in which strangers with huge plastic bags came on the vehicle to sell this salty delicacy. My strongest memory of Charqui resides in the stuffy bus full of voyagers like me. I don’t need to be reminded. Its dry floury rough texture which leaves a crumbly fatty layer on my fingertips. The biting but subtle scent of iron, but most of all, the saltiness that engulfs my mouth. A piece of meat that reminds me of Chile itself; a rough terrain you must chew through and rip apart to understand its complex layers and lost history hidden within this long strip of land.
History was made along the trade routes of salt. Through the discovery of its conservational qualities, salt became a necessity in trade and in the household long before the fridge. 3
The application of salt directly on the meat’s surface removes the water stored in the flesh, prolonging its conservational qualities. Once the water is removed, the flesh’s weight is reduced, which results in lighter transportation of the goods. The concentration of the flesh also enhances its flavor. The arid and cold environments in the Andes help significantly to reduce the growth of bad mold.

Charqui – which derives from Quechua language and translates to thin and dry – is nothing else than what the rest of the world knows as beef jerky. Quechua, which was one of the largest indigenous empires in Latin America during the pre-Columbian era 4 before it was split between Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and Peru belongs today to one of the endangered indigenous languages and is prone to extinction.5 In conjunction with the loss of knowledge of this ancient language comes the loss of the knowledge to the preparation of charqui. There remain only a few families that know the secret of its manufacture.6 Charqui was and is still handcrafted on different altitudes through the Andean area in Chile.

A word comes to my mind which can only be expressed in its own native language, even if it is not my own; Saudade. 7 Saudade in Portuguese is translated to an intense longing for someone or something. Unlike nostalgia one can feel “saudade” for something that might never have happened or existed It is the Charqui that takes me back home. I express the feeling of saudade because across the continent parts of my native ingredients simply do not exist. How can I reconnect to my roots without having any access to the ingredients nor being near the environment of my ancestry?

One unknown Jar of Capers I forgot in my Cabinet

I am not sure what to cook today. It has been a long and cold day. The little forest I pass by when going home is dull from the fog created by the rigid environment. The persistent cold has taken the shine from the tree leaves and colors them dark green. I find the same color upon opening the door to my cabinet. Sitting there, in a small jar that once contained orange or fig jam from the nonna next door, now holds little buds covered in coarse sea salt. This little jar, before filled with sadness for slowly losing the sweet marmalade smell which previously coated its inner walls, now glows with the enthusiasm of a snow globe.
The buds of the Capparis spinosa were taken before they were allowed to bloom into beautiful pink petals. I taste the process, the harsh sun under which these sprouts bloom, the red dirt covered hands that pick each bud so carefully and selectively while a drop of sweat rolls down their tanned neck, tickling them.8 Innocence and pureness surround these capers hiding under salt. The hands that so carefully moved them from their harvest until the time of their use in the kitchen. I can’t force myself to use a spoon to take them out of the jar nor use any other tool to wash them under water other than my own gentle hands.
Stored in these bulb looking jars with the glass, foggy from the coarse salt, I have my own little snow-globe of Sicilian culture. The origin of these mason jars is unknown, constantly circulating in the hands of women caretakers around me creating imprints on the glass handed to me, the same ones that shaped my being of who I am today.

The salt washes over me, not only preserving my developing nature but also giving me the flavor of time. In my own way, I will find my own taste.

capperi fiore


A taste of salty Caramel and four Countries later

Growing up within a half Italian household, I can safely declare we are a proud folk when it comes to our food. Judgment befalls those who change the context of the recipe. We like to believe that the original is best. The best comes, of course from our mothers. Originality is contested even between Italian people. Only through the change of countries and the unavailability of quality products, has made me raise my doubt of this engraved belief. There is a need to deviate from the strict origins of cuisines.
I spoke with Asli Hatipoğlu, an artist with Turkish-Thai roots and master of fermentation based in Brussels. Through her I came to understand that the West, too tied to its needs of introducing originality into worldly cuisines forgets one important aspect: the reason of the arrival of international cuisines was for people to be able to reconnect to their roots and their origins. Their adaptation through ingredients becomes an adaptation and interpretation of their lost homes within their new and foreign environments. Over those five hours, I came to see Asli as a caring person. She knows and understands the value of communication and creating safe environments. Environments in which cooking becomes a learning experience through the ingredients in front of us.9
The need to share became even clearer on a lecture I joined with Moon Sung Hee, who visited from Korea the city of Ghent for the event Sonmat.10 Back in Korea, Moon’s collective hosts workshops on what I grasped as ‘innocent cooking’.
It was through her story and a simple piece of candy, ganjang caramel translated as soy sauce caramel that has presented to me the possibilities of redefining culture through food.
The importance of this candy lies in its production.
Soy sauce replaces the typical salt grains Westerners place on the table. Within this candy it is important to understand the quality of the soy sauce. Traditionally soy sauce is made through fermentation. Cheaper variants are often not fermented which results in a faster production but an end product lacking aroma and flavor.11 The magical collaboration began when Moon reconnected with her friend, a woman who travelled from Korea to Ghent to learn the practice of the typical caramel candy production in Belgium. The outcome of the reunion resulted in the first and probably last candy of this sort I will ever come across: a caramel candy made with Moon’s 15-year-old fermented soy sauce.

Moon reclaims her tradition by culturally reviving son-mat. 12 Son-mat (hand taste) comes from the Korean belief that the energy of one’s body touching the food influences its taste. She produces by far the most important ingredient that is used in all dishes. Without the taste of saltiness, we would be like the old king at the banquet.


Is it still Witchcraft when Salt leaves the Sea and the Olive starts bleeding?

In Italian culture, as in most countries, salt is seen as a sacred good. As shown in the story written by Italo Calvino, salt carries a deeper meaning that considers not only its use in the kitchen but also in subcultural rituals and traditions.
One such ritual was once performed on my mother. The Malocchio ritual consists of determining whether someone attached an evil eye on a person and in breaking any such spell.
Breaking the spell will remove any physical disturbances and bad luck that the evil eye created.
In the ritual, the person sits in front of a plate filled with water, at least from what I experienced that gloomy afternoon, the spell performer then dips their fingers in olive oil and holds it above the plate of water. If the fallen drops remain one, then no such spell was cast. If the drops fall and split into many small droplets it means someone gave you the malocchio.
To break such spell, the following words need to be spoken while dropping salt in four points of the plate forming a transparent cross: “Father, Son and the Holy Spirit”. The performer then touches with their oil covered fingertips the salt next to them. They touch upon the victim’s forehead and speaking following lines:

Occhio malocchio pigghiata docchio
nesce u malocchio e trase u bonocchio
Sinni va pa so via
cu Gesù, Giuseppe e Maria.

When finished with this ritual it is crucial to get rid of the water. It is in everyone’s best interest to throw it as far as possible from home, to not have the malocchio finding its way back to you. To make sure the spell is properly broken one recites:

Acqua e sale pi li mari
acqua e sale pi cu ni vole male


The artist Patricia Kaersenhout is another notable example of using salt as a form of ritual. For the exhibition Manifesta 12 in Palermo, the artist had placed a mountain of 8,000 kilograms of salt in the middle of a room, then young refugees sang 19th century slave songs while a Winti Priest 14 Afro-Surinamese priest. The religion Winti originated in Suriname. blessed the salt. Spectators could then carry the salt with them and dissolve it in water at home. Her comment towards the artwork: “The sea salt refers to the salt which enslaved people refrained from eating so they could fly back to Africa. But it also stands symbol for mental and physical liberation. It refers to slaves crossing the salt water of the Atlantic Ocean on their way to plantations. Its the salt of all the tears shed during slavery and colonialism.”15
Patricia Kaersenhout uses salt as a remedy for healing to release the pain of the past.

Through the previous examples given, salt resurfaces not only as an ingredient on the table but is also used in mourning, in removing the bad, and celebrating the small moments in life. Whether one does so intentionally or unintentionally, it is shown how these small grains play a big role in across different cultures and generations.



Amongst Monsters and salted Cods, I bathe in the Brine of the World

I was awaiting a package from my mother. Brown and heavy, inside full of little treasures that I am too excited to eat all by myself.

Here the itinerary of the box sent by my mother;

10 chocolate bars from Switzerland (four of them past the date of consumption),
one chunk of Gruyère,
one chunk of parmigiano,
caramelle alla carruba 16 Carob candies for sore throats ,
other caramel candies (I don’t like them),
one jar of honey from Sardegna,
one jar of quince jam (the same jar will be used for capers once it is finished),
two jars of pesto di pistacchio,
one big jar of pistachio cream spread,
Sicilian cookies,
Sicilian cookies of a different type,
Anchovies under salt
and finally candied quince.


The last one was made by my uncle in Sicily. Little honey-colored rocks shimmering in sugar like crystals. Sugar and salt. Sweet and salty. Putting these words together makes me think indeed of my uncle, although I felt I never had a strong connection with him. Yet he was one out of all three siblings who made me laugh the most. I look back smiling at an adult man who would ram his head in my grandmother’s closet and search for me while I was so obviously sitting on the bed shedding tears of laughter with the rest of my family.
In my youth my uncle took me fishing once. He put me in his little boat he owns and drove out into the sea. Lo stretto di Messina, the Strait of Messina – where the sea parts Messina from the mainland, making the western tip of Calabria the closest to our island.
How many legends my nonna told me of the monsters that lured so close by. One of the most famous ones was Odysseus journey home to Ithaca. In which he encounters the cyclops Polyphemus and upon his escape other monsters awaited. Scylla, a beautiful nymph that was turned into a monster and ate sailors on the Calabrian side, hiding in a cave at the cliff. Charybdis, creating large whirlpools known to sink ships residing, or even being the Strait of Messina itself. The idiom between Scylla and Charybdis arose, to choose among two dangerous paths and mastering its escape.
I truly rose amongst gods and monsters.

I sat there in silence while my uncle showed me how to tie worms, waiting for Charybdis’ vortex to pull us down to where the fish live.

“Sciroccu, malanova e piscistoccu a Missina non mancanu mai” 17 “Sirocco, bad news and salted cod are never absent in Messina.”

bacalhau1 bacalhau2


The protagonist in Sicilian and Portuguese kitchen is the baccalà or bacalhau. The term is mostly used to describe white fish put under salt. The cod which was originally fished in Norway fished cod is now found in most coastal regions’ recipes across many different cultures. The fish did not spread only through commercial routes but also through its natural course of habitat. Certain families of the cod are also fished in the Mediterranean.18
The rays of sun heating the ocean water by the beach, in distance the typical swordfish boats with its long mast. If I would describe the charqui as winter, then the cod cannot be anything other than summer. I may be wrong with the assumption as cod gets fished all year around, yet my mind cannot connect it to anything other but the insalata di baccalà alla siciliana.
A salad which is eaten very differently in comparison to others. One eats it with conscience. The fibrous consistency must be masticated with intent. No other thought is permitted to enter during this action. Like the cod itself knew: “I am here at your mercy, and I will make you work for it.” Through its tough flesh we are forced to notice and experience the depth of its flavor.
The utmost important thing when handling the baccalà, is to immerse the fish in water for up to three days before it gets cooked. The water gets replaced repeatedly. After the process of boiling the fish, it finds itself in a mixture of tomatoes, onions, potatoes, capers and other herbs. The cod taken from its native brine, to find itself in another, even more fragrant one.

"It could be the victim himself, supine on the altar, offering his own entrails on the dish. Or the sacrificer, who assumes the pose of the victim because he is aware that tomorrow it will be his turn. Without this reciprocity, human sacrifice would be unthinkable."
– Salustiano, 'Under the Jaguar Sun'19


There once was a Child picking Apples and Lemons, until it found a salty Rock

My feet take the first step on the new land. A land I revisited in the past. You should know me. Your history runs partly through my veins, merged with the Sicilian proudness. I took a stone with me when I left you, back to my home I never really belonged to. I licked your bumps and nooks while my eyes squinted from the salinity. Feel the small sand grains that grind on my teeth when I swish you through my mouth. I ingested you. And yet, I cannot sound the way your natives speak. The other day, one of you came to my home to pick up a table my roommate sold. I did not recognize you until you answered the phone call. The little sing sang your children master. How close I felt in that moment and with excitement I engaged, but she did not recognize me as theirs. She thought I was Mexican.

My father laughed as I told him about the encounter: “It is true, Chilean people don’t recognize you. Your accent is not the same, but it is the language we always communicated in. It is the language we talk in when we say I love you.

I am afraid of losing my language a bit more. It is a difficult task to upkeep a language over the years of not being able to revisit the homeland. It has been too long. But don’t forget, I am the salt that conserves the culture. All of them. I am the vessel of my land. My hands don’t forget the motions when I prepare my native dishes.



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    Accessed 16 Dec. 2023. ↩︎

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  1. Calvino, Italo William Weaver.
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  2. “Living on the Edge: Brine Pool Organisms.” .

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I am immensely grateful to all those who have supported me on my thesis journey. I extend my heartfelt thanks to my supervisor, Dirk Vis, for his unwavering guidance, expertise, and encouragement. His valuable insights and feedback have been instrumental in shaping my work.
I would also like to express my gratitude to my family and friends, whose support, understanding, and reading my thesis over and over again have been pivotal to my success. Without their encouragement and belief in me, I would not have been able to accomplish this task.
Lastly, I would like to acknowledge the individuals who have crossed my path during my research, whose profound enthusiasm for food and diverse perspectives have inspired me. Thank you, Asli Hatipoğlu, Lore Snauwaert, and Moon Sung Hee.

Thank you to everyone who has been a part of my journey and has helped me achieve my academic goals.

Isabel Pereira

B.A. Graphic Design
Royal Academy of Art – The Hague

Dirk Vis

February, 2023