COMMENT: Soliloquy for Salt —Saleem H Ali
This humble compound that simply contains a sodium and chlorine atom in its molecule has quite a story to tell about human societies. So the next time you sprinkle some of this wondrous stuff on your food, pause and reflect on the sparkle it has brought to humanity over the ages
As Ramadan approaches, the sense of taste in Muslim countries acquires a particular salience. My columns during this period will be about our relationship with food and its impact on the environment and society.
So let’s begin with the most important and dominant namkeen ingredient of our palate. Salt is not just pleasing to the taste buds but is also an essential electrolyte for making sure people remain energetic and attentive. But perhaps the quality of salt most valued, historically, was one indirectly shared with gold — the amazing ability it has to prolong the life of valued commodities. While gold gilding could preserve metals by insulating them from attack by oxygen, salt protected essential edibles from attack by bacteria. In a world without refrigeration, the power to preserve food was a priceless charm. Preserved meats and vegetables could help communities endure famines, make seasonal climatic changes less consequential, and provide high-protein diets for militaries.
The stark irony of salt has always been its ubiquity in the oceans, where it was least useful to humans, and its relative scarcity on land. Indeed, the presence of salt in the oceans prevented human civilisations from harnessing the most essential resource for survival — water. Sailors languished from thirst while surrounded by water, even as on the coast, elaborate evaporation mechanisms were constructed to gather salt from the sea.
In a strange twist of resource inefficiency, water from such processes, despite its need, was often lost to evaporation. Desalination at a larger scale did not come into being until the seventeenth century, when Japanese sailors began to purify water using earthen retorts. Conversely, the coastal evaporation industry was busy collecting salt, largely with solar power, for many centuries before it occurred to anyone to find a way of recapturing the water that was being lost.
The Venetians mastered the art of harvesting salt from the sea through simple innovations in their maritime city. They constructed a series of artificial ponds of seawater, connected with sluices to allow for concentration of brine to occur in successive ponds, until salt precipitated out of the densest solution. When brine becomes supersaturated to around 26 percent salt (normal seawater is around 3 percent salt), it begins to precipitate out of solution. The salt industry in Venice perfected the art of reaching that precipitation level and contributed phenomenally to the wealth of the city, which nurtured intellectuals, traders, and such famous explorers such as Marco Polo.
Salt was a common connection also between the Europeans and the exotic East that Marco Polo visited. The Chinese had their own infatuation with salt, which they often derived from terrestrial brine wells. Outside the city of Zigong in the province of Sichuan, elaborate systems of bamboo piping were constructed as early as the eleventh century, and even today the city is best known for its salt museum. In his marvellous book on salt, Mark Kurlansky recounts how Marco Polo noted that Kain-du salt cakes, stamped with an image of Kublai Khan, were used as currency, even more significantly than the paper for which Chinese technology is most often celebrated.
Brine wells, which we now associate with salinity and waterlogging in developing countries, were at one time a prized find. Long before the age of oil, people were drilling for salt with as much ardour as that exhibited for any other treasure. Ironically, oil was found as a by-product of such drilling, but often little use was found for it, except perhaps in mediaeval Persia and Azerbaijan. Here, alongside salt, oil was collected in pools, and spontaneous fires from gas- venting mud “volcanoes” were collectively worshiped by locals for centuries. Yet this spiritually charged oil still gave salt little competition as a commodity.
Even in North America, brine wells produced salt for decades before commercial uses for oil were discovered. In 1815, oil was being recorded as an unwanted by-product from brine wells in Pennsylvania, not far from the site of the first celebrated commercial oil strike by Colonel Edwin Drake in 1859.
Salt trading centres worldwide became crossroads of commerce in the most unlikely places. The fabled city of Timbuktu in the heart of the Sahara, in present-day Mali, was built with salt trade from the mines of Taghaza, a city five hundred miles away, which was known for having so much salt that buildings were constructed out of the mineral. Gold was frequently traded in exchange for salt from the mines of Taghaza, and the wealth was put to good use in building universities and schools around Timbuktu. All this salt from the desert mines of the Sahara headed north for centuries, until more widespread salt mining began in central and eastern Europe during the Middle Ages.
The most astonishing salt deposits in Europe were found in the thirteenth century in present-day Poland and are still the largest active salt mines in the world, followed by Pakistan’s own Khewra salt mines. Visitors to the great salt mine at Wieliczka in southern Poland, near Krakow, are treated to gigantic chambers that rival church halls with artwork crafted out of rock salt: huge chandeliers, a statue of Pope John Paul II, and even a replica of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper grace the caverns of this phenomenal site.
Perhaps most memorably for South Asians, Mohandas Gandhi’s minimalist lifestyle made room for salt in his struggle against the British. Considering access to salt a human right, he marched to the sea with his minions when the British threatened to tax the commodity. The salt satyagraha is considered a monumental act of civil disobedience in the history of the subcontinent that made its mark on the British Raj.
At the end of the day, this humble compound that simply contains a sodium and chlorine atom in its molecule has quite a story to tell about human societies. So the next time you sprinkle some of this wondrous stuff on your food, pause and reflect on the sparkle it has brought to humanity over the ages.
Dr. Saleem H. Ali is associate professor of environmental planning at the University of Vermont. This article is partially excerpted from his forthcoming book Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future (Yale University Press, October, 2009). www.saleemali.net