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
– Pablo Neruda, Ode to Salt
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
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.
MORE SALT AND A LITTLE BIT OF SOMETHING ELSE
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
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
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,
daughter revealed herself in front of him. They made up and lived
happily ever after.
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.
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
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.
The application of salt directly on the meat’s surface
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
before it was split between Argentina, Bolivia, Chile
belongs today to one of the endangered indigenous languages and is prone
to extinction. 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.
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.
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
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
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. 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
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
A QUESTION OF TIME AND TASTE
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.
The need to share became even clearer on a lecture I joined
Sung Hee, who visited from Korea the city of Ghent for the event
Sonmat. 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
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.
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
Moon reclaims her tradition by culturally reviving son-mat.
Son-mat (hand taste) comes from the Korean
belief that the energy of one’s body touching the food influences its
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 d’occhio
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
Afro-Surinamese priest. The religion Winti originated
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. It’s the salt
of all the tears shed during slavery and colonialism.”
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
one chunk of Gruyère,
one chunk of parmigiano,
caramelle alla carruba
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
two jars of pesto di pistacchio,
one big jar of pistachio cream spread,
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
“Sciroccu, malanova e piscistoccu a Missina non mancanu mai”
“Sirocco, bad news and salted cod are never absent in
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.
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
– Salustiano, 'Under the Jaguar Sun'
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.