Author: cachi2016

One half pound of small grain Sacred Valley Salt from Maras, Peru in hand-made canvas pouch. 

Description

This small grain salt has been hand sifted to yield a typical grain size of ~0.03 in (0.8mm).  No need to use a grinder, just take a pinch and sprinkle over a finished dish. Comes in a hand-made canvas pouch that is reusable and handy for lots of different uses.

What do Star Wars and the Sacred Valley have in common?

 

To start with, I invite you to enjoy this controversial little clip from the original Star Wars episode.  If you can set aside you existential angst about who actually fired first, you might notice that the language Greedo speaks in sounds strangely . . .realistic.

 

This is because he is speaking Quechua: the indigenous language of the Sacred Valley.  Quechua actually comprises an entire language family that spreads from Ecuador to Chile.  Just like the Romance languages, the Quechua languages have definite similarities to one another, but can only make themselves mutually understood with great difficulty.  The form of Quechua spoken in the Sacred Valley is Quechua Cusqueña.  (Quechua of Cusco)

 

You might have heard recently about the fact that many small indigenous languages are slowly being gobbled up by the larger languages of English Spanish and Mandarin.  This is absolutely true in the case of Quechua.  I came to know numerous families in which the grandparents speak only Quechua, the parents speak Quechua and Spanish, and the grandchildren speak only Spanish.  Not only is it sad to see the language itself dying out, but the fact that so many grandchildren are unable to speak to their grandparents puts a human face on problems associated with language transition. 

 

This having been said, it is quite clear that some Quechua words are here to stay.  Machu Picchu, for instance, is not just the name of a tourist destination.  It actually means “old mountain”.  Huyna Picchu (sometimes spelled “Wyna Picchu”) is the smaller mountain right next to Machu Picchu and means, “young mountain.”  While most tourists think of these only as place names, Picchu (pronounced peek-chew), Huyna, and Machu are all words frequently heard in everyday conversations. 

Huyna PIcchu as seen from Machu Picchu
Huyna Picchu as seen from the summit of Machu Picchu

One of the most interesting things that you will observe in the Sacred Valley is the strange mixing of Quechua and Spanish.  If you buy a kilo of potatoes in the market, it is customary to receive yapa, which is a little bit of extra product thrown in after the weight is taken as a show of good faith to the buyer.  It is not uncommon to hear people asking for their yapita.  This is the Quechua word yapa mixed with the Spanish diminutive suffix ita. The net result is a hybrid word.  Most local people couldn’t tell you the origin, but it is universally understood to mean “Hey, don’t forget to throw in a little extra!”

 

Here is a clip that I filmed from a typical town meeting in Ollantaytambo that contains a typical slurry of Spanish mixed with Quechua. 

 

As a tourist, you will be an instant celebrity if you remember to bring miski (candy) to share with children, guides, store clerks, or anybody who you want to make friends with.  Wasi is probably the most common word you will see as it means house, and nearly all hotels find a way to include it in their names.  Hatun Wasi (the big house), Sumak Wasi (wonderful house), Inca Wasi, and Gringo Wasi are some of the names I have seen.  I used to live near a kindergarten called Wawa Wasi (wawa being the word for child).

Wawa is Quechua for Child
Wawas waiting for the bus to leave

While the number of Quechua speakers decreases, it is also clear that some words have already been lost completely.  I have never met anyone, no-matter how isolated or elderly that knew the Quechua word for the color blue.  Nor does modern Quechua have a word for “friend”.  The word for brother (huayak’ay) or a modified Spanish loan-word (amigon. depending on the sentence structure) is employed for the task. 

 

To add to the confusion, there is still no consensus on spelling conventions for Quechua.  I have seen the word for one with spellings ranging from “huk” to “juj” and many people consider it improper to ever use Spanish loanwords even when no Quechua word or phrase exists that will convey the same idea. 

 

A final, noteworthy result of this recent language transition is the localized deficit of vocabulary.  Imagine if every single person that you ever met in your entire life were either first or second generation English learners.  It would be very difficult to ever build up an ample vocabulary.  The Sacred Valley region finds itself in this very situation with Spanish.  Thus, while many children who speak only Spanish, their vocabulary is very limited and they struggle with even basic spelling and grammar. 

 

Here is a welcome sign.  It should read Bienvenidos. But since “b” and “v” are pronounced similarly, they are mixed up. 

Spanish spelling issues
When Spanish is EVERYBODY’S second language, spelling starts to go by the wayside.

After some posts centered on the socioeconomic conditions in rural Peru, it’s now time to address a topic of real importance.

 

What do they drink in Peru? 

 

To begin with, sugar is the name of the game down here.  It seems that few beverages can be viewed as complete without a boatload of extra sugar dumped in.  Consequently, soda (known here as “gaseosa”) is very popular.  There is, of course, the standard line-up of Coca-Cola products that are bottled in Peru.  If you buy these in glass bottles, you need to either drink it on the spot or pay a hefty deposit on the bottle.  This is because the bottles are not recycled, they are washed and re-used.  While some flavors that have been extinct for many years in the states, like Tuti-Fruti, still exist here, the hands-down soft drink of choice is “Inca Kola” (a bubblegum-flavored bright-yellow syrupy concoction which is sweeter than anything you’ve ever tasted in your life.)

Inka Cola Truck
Inka Cola delivery truck overlooking Cusco
Corn Kernels used to make Chicha Morado
Dark purple corn kernels used to make chicha morado

While soda is well-liked by all, it is also pretty expensive.  Most people make their own chicha morado.  It is made by boiling some dark purple corn in water (along with a little cinnamon, pineapple rinds, apples, and whatever else looks tasty) until the water turns a deep purple color. 

 

At this point, the requisite boatload of sugar is added and then the drink is chilled to enjoy later.  Doctors say that chica morado is great for reducing blood pressure and some people are looking into exporting it for that reason. 

 

Beer is also available, and is drunk in large quantities at religious festivals, but it is actually rather expensive and the selection is limited.

 

So then, the most widely consumed beverage, by far, (doubtless exceeding water) is called chicha.  (This is not to be confused with chicha morado or chicha de quinoa or any of the other drinks with chicha in their names.  This is just plain old chicha, or sometimes chicha de jora if you want to be precise.)  One of the first things that any observant traveler wandering the narrow streets of a small town in rural Peru will notice is that nearly every street has at least one, often two or three, houses with a long pole that has a small red garbage bag tied to the end of it sticking out over the street. 

Street with Chicha Flags
Calle Comercio in Urubamba. If you look closely, you can make out 3 chicha flags within about 50 yards.

If that observant traveler were to boldly walk into one of these houses, after sidestepping the chickens and cuyes running  around, he would likely see a huge clay pot filled with a frothy foamy sour smelling (and tasting) liquid.  If he were to pay the owner of the house about 20 cents, they would give him a gigantic glass full of this frothy liquid called chicha, which he would gulp down before continuing on his way.  The doctors here claim that drinking chicha is good for your prostate.  Who knew?

So what exactly is this frothy foamy stuff?  This is what I endeavored to find out.  The following (as well as an exceptionally healthy prostate) are the results of my painstaking research.

Don't Cap a Chicha Bottle
Don’t cap chicha. It’ll keep on fermenting and pop your bottle.

The formation of ethanol (drinking) alcohol is typically the result of a biological process in which yeast cells consume simple sugars and convert them into carbon dioxide and alcohol.  If you let all of the carbon dioxide escape you end up with a flat drink such as wine.  If you cork the sugary mixture right at the beginning of fermentation, you end up with a nearly nonalcoholic drink like homebrewed soda pop.  If you cork the fluid in mid-fermentation, or near the end of fermentation you end up with a fizzy alcoholic drink like champagne or beer.

 

 If you are attempting to make wine or champagne, all you need to do is add some yeast to some grape juice and away it goes.  This is because grapes are loaded with natural sugars for the yeast to consume and turn into alcohol.  But what if you live at 10,000 ft elevation in the Andes Mountains and your vineyard isn’t exactly flourishing?  In that case, you start looking for something else to feed your hungry yeast.  And your eye happens to fall on the bag of dry corn sitting in the corner.  Hmmm.

Pervuian Corn with Huge Kernels
Corn is big in Peru

Assuming you lived in the Sacred Valley in the year 1500 AD (the ancient Incas actually had chicha factories) and you had a pretty good knowledge of chemistry,  let’s say you happen to know that corn is made up of starches.  And you also know that starches are nothing more than a bunch of simple sugar molecules stuck together in long chains.  Yeast cells love to eat simple sugars, but can’t break down starches.  Hmmm.

 

So you decide to talk to your pal who is in charge of the agricultural lab in the small town of Maras (This is no joke, archeologists have uncovered a huge Incan agricultural laboratory near the present-day town of Maras.)

Moray - Incan Agricultural Research Center
These ruins were once used by the Incas as a laboratory to study agriculture.

He informs you that, in order to grow; tiny little plants need a supply of sugar from the seed in order to give them a good start in life until they can start making their own sugars using photosynthesis.  The trouble is that sugar doesn’t store very well.  Therefore, plants store starches in their seeds, and then when the little seeds start to sprout, they make some enzymes that start to break down the starches into simpler sugars that the tiny little plant can use.  Hmmm.
 

So now you have your plan. First, you soak your corn kernels in water until they start to sprout.  Now you know that they have a bunch of enzymes that are breaking down the starches in the corn into simple sugars.  But you don’t want the plants to eat the sugars, you want your yeast to eat the sugars.  So  you put the little sprouts out in the sun until they dry out and the sprouts die.  Then you grind them all up, mix them with water, and start cooking them.  The enzymes from the corn sprouts rapidly start breaking down the starches into simple sugars (incidentally, a very similar process is used to make corn syrup).  Now that you have a big pot of simple sugars and water all that you have to do is throw in some yeast and away it goes! 

Chicha brewing pot
The large clay pot in the background is full of chicha. The blankets draped over the top of the pot are to keep the flies out.

Traditionally, folks wait about three days to drink the chicha.  The fermentation is not entirely complete at this point (as the yeast has not been able to consume all of the sugars) so it is still foaming and slightly carbonated when you drink it.  Also, some people will mix in a few strawberries and sugar just before consumption to make a product called frutillada (this drink typically costs 30 cents instead of 20).  Incidentally, in the United States, a similar process is used to make what amounts to chicha (mash beer).  This is then distilled to make bourbon whiskey.  So there’s your answer to the question in the title of this blog post.

Inside a Chicharia
Inside a typical chicharia

So next time you’re wandering through the towns and villages of the Andes and you find yourself tired and thirsty,  just look around for the little red garbage bags on the end of long poles.  If you are willing to acquire a taste for the sourdough of beers, I highly recommend the naturally fermented, home-brewed, deliciously corny taste of CHICHA!

A man who had too much chicha
This is definitely not this fellow’s first bottle of chicha. It takes an average-sized Peruvian around 10 bottles of chicha to reach this state.

What ever happened to the little family farm anyway?  You know, the Laura Ingalls Wilder style that we all like to picture in our minds when we hear the word ‘farm.’ Put simply, this is what happened to it. 

Large Scale Farm Equipment

(Thanks to modernfarmer.com for this photo)

Without modern machinery, it took a whole family of workers to cultivate your average 150 acre farm of 100 years ago.  With the birth of the tractor however, everything changed.  The only limit to how much land a farmer could cultivate was the size of his tractor.  Every time a larger tractor came out, fewer workers were needed in the field.  It became advantageous to merge small farms into bigger ones to keep those tractors busy.  The result is obvious, as you can see in the following graph from the USDA: 

Average Farm Size and Number of Farms since 1900

Image though, a place where it was physically impossible for this trend to occur. 

Enter: The Sacred Valley of Peru.  Once the bread basket of the Inca Empire, (the corn basket really, but let’s not get bogged down with all the details) the Sacred Valley is known for its mild year-round temperatures, abundant water, and good soil.  What it does not have however, are large open plains.  Nearly all the farming is done in small terraces like these. Many small farms are built on the same terraces, that were made centuries ago on the sloping valley walls. 

Terraces for Farming near Pisacacucho

Because a large tractor cannot physically fit onto these terraces, people still use bulls to plow their fields.  Two bulls will pull a long wooden plow that has a metal tip on it.  This is a close-up of one of the wooden plows.

Standard wooden plow with metal tip

Here is pair of bulls yoked up to one of these plows.  This picture was taken while both the bulls and the family driving them were taking a break. 

Bulls plowing the field in Peru

There is another other reason why a small farm can survive today in the Sacred Valley: wages.  In the US, it is rarely profitable to engage in any type of farming other than industrial scale farming.  This is because, relative to wages, food prices here are very low. 

For example, a 10lb bag of potatoes in the US will normally cost less than $3.  Minimum wage in California is over $10 per hour.  In the Sacred Valley, where potatoes are the cheapest in the entire country of Peru, 10lbs of potatoes will cost you about $1.75 (this will vary quite a lot depending on the time of year and the success of the growing season).  Minimum wage is less than $1 per hour. So in California, you would have to grow more than 30lbs of potatoes per hour worked in order to make minimum wage.  In Peru, you would only need to grow 5lbs per hour worked.  That is why families can actually make a living plowing their fields with a pair of bulls yoked to a wooden plow. 

Few of us would be willing to accept the very high food costs vs. wages that would be necessary in order to go back to the old, Little House on the Prairie-style farms.  It does strike a nostalgic cord, though, to see how many people are still able to keep the small family farm alive in The Sacred Valley. 

 

 

Farming by Hand near Chichubamba Peru
Farming by hand near Chichubamba, Peru
One Bullpower farm implement-Chichubamba Peru
A one-bullpower farm implement

Walk into an average natural foods store, and you’ll encounter many a product label lavishly employing such terms as “enchanted,” “spiritual,” “mystical,” “aura,” “kharma,” and so on.  Far be it from us to judge, but for our part, we don’t really think salt possesses the requisite level of sentience to merit association with such enlightened wording.  Still, read our website, and this “Sacred Valley” term keeps popping up everywhere, sounding suspiciously like a phrase worked up by a marketing firm.

 

Never fear, it’s legit.  The Valle Sagrado de los Incas (Sacred Valley of the Incas) is simply the name that’s been used to refer to a particular region of Peru for the past several hundred years, ever since the Incas started viewing it as, well…sacred.

Sacred Valley of the Incas
Photo from Wikipedia by Charles Gadbois

Map of Sacred Valley Region

The map above gives a good, simplified overview of the general area. In general, the Sacred Valley Region refers to what you see on this map, the heartland of the Inca Empire.  This includes many areas that are not technically in the valley itself.  The ancient Inca capital of Cusco, for example, is in its own valley, separated from the Sacred Valley by a mountain pass.  Likewise, the spectacular ruins of Machu Picchu are perched on the side of steep mountains which descend into a narrow gorge.  There is no valley in the immediate vicinity.

 

The Sacred Valley proper refers to a stretch of the the river known as the Urubamba, the Vilcanota, or the Willkamayu, depending on where you are and whom you talk to.  In Quechua, Willkamayu means “sacred river.” This stretch of river, shown in a Google Earth screenshot, below, has flat, fertile ground alongside, a rare commodity high in the Andes.

Satellite view of the Sacred Valley

For the Inca Empire, part of what made it sacred was its fertility. It was one of the most important areas for maize production. The climate is very good for agriculture, and the ruins at Moray (look for more on this in a future blog post) seem to have functioned as an ancient government agricultural laboratory and seedling nursery.  Today, in addition to maize, quinoa is widely cultivated. 

Quinoa crops in the Sacred Valley

And last, but by no means least, the salt pools at Salineras de Maras were the empire’s primary source of salt.  

Salineras in the Sacred Valley

Thus, “Sacred Valley Salt” is actually a very matter-of-fact product name.  Of course, we’d love for you to give this salt a try, and just to tempt you, here’s a link to purchase some.

 

But whether or not salt interests you, the Sacred Valley’s natural beauty is sure to impress.  Here are a couple of photos to enjoy.

Sacred Valley of the Incas

Photo from Wikipedia
Photo from Wikipedia

Sacred_Valley-02

Urubamba flowing through the Sacred Valley

If you’ve visited our “Hype-Free Zone,” you know what we think of wildly exaggerated or even blatantly false claims about the supposed curative properties of certain types of fancy salt. We specifically mention Himalayan salt, simply because no other salt’s hype has infested the internet to such an extent. But just because a particular type  of salt is nauseatingly hyped-up doesn’t mean the salt itself is no good or that there isn’t an interesting story behind it. Many people really like the flavor of Himalayan salt, and we think you’ll also enjoy reading its story.

 
Himalayan salt doesn’t actually come from the Himalayas.  It comes from the Khewra salt mine in Pakistan. 

Khewra-City
City of Khewra, a bowshot away from the salt mine. Not very mountainous.

Of course, “Pakistani Salt” doesn’t conjure up quite the same majestic mental images as “Himalayan Salt.” Thus, the magic of marketing combined with the average consumer’s poor knowledge of Asian geography work in tandem to erase a gap of hundreds of miles between where something is said to come from and where it actually comes from.  For our story, though, it’s quite fortuitous that the Khewra salt mine sits at a mere 1,000 ft elevation 100 miles south of Islamabad.  Because if it actually was tucked in some inaccessible nook high in the Himalayas, it wouldn’t have such an interesting history.

 

Going back 23+ centuries, Alexander the Great’s campaigns had come about as far eastward as they were going to get.  He had just won a victory over Porus at the Jhelum River (better known by the Greek name, Hydaspes, among historians). 

Battle-of-the-Hydaspes
Jhelum (Hydaspes) – One of Alexander’s toughest battles.

If you search for the Khewra salt mines on Google Earth, you’ll notice that they’re real close to the Jhelum River.  According to Alexander’s crack team of geography experts, the end of the world was now only about 600 miles away.  If he could finish conquering India, he’d have reached his modest goal of conquering the world.  But as they marched a bit further, and they heard repors of 300,000 coalition troops sharpening their lances on the other side of the Ganges, his army’s confidence began to wane.  But I’m getting off topic.  Long story short, Alexander didn’t get to conquer the whole world.

 

At some point during his coming or going past the Jhelum River, as the story goes, some of the horses from his cavalry started licking the stones, and his men quickly discovered that the stones were salty. And so the salt was discovered in the string of hills known today as the Salt Range. Whether or not this story is true is anyone’s guess. During the British occupation of this region, it was quite the “in” thing to attribute anything and everything to Alexander the Great.

 

No organized mining is recorded until a millennium-and-a-half later by the Janjua-Raja tribe in 13th century. Given salt’s value in the ancient world, though, once people knew there was salt to be found, they were probably gathering it all along in small-scale operations. In the 16th century the Mughal Empire swept through, led by its first Emperor, Babur.

Babur
Babur – Chuck Norris is afraid of him.

From the moment he was born, he was destined to be one bad dude, descended as he was from Genghis Khan on his mother’s side and Tamurlane on his father’s side! But again, I’m off on a tangent. Back to the salt mine.

 

The Mughals made good use of the mines until their empire ran out of steam.  The Punjabi Sikhs finally kicked them out and took over the mines in 1809.  They’re the ones who named the salt mines “Khewra.” Unfortunately for them, another empire moved in only 40 years later: the British.

 

When it came to business, the colonial British meant business.  They quickly had it whipped into a shape to run as a proper salt might ought, complete with a good Christian name (it was renamed Mayo salt mine after Lord Mayo, the Viceroy of India), tunnel excavation, and local forced labor.

Colonial-British
“Now that’s a proper salt mine!”

It was not a nice place to be subjected to forced labor.  The workers (men, women, and children) were locked inside and not let out until they’d filled their quotas of salt. In 1876, during a protest, 12 were shot and killed.

 

It could have been still worse, though, if it hadn’t been for the engineer in charge of the main tunnel.  He employed the room-and-pillar method of excavation.  Old-fashioned methods often wound up involving just blasting a bigger and bigger cavern until it either collapsed, burying everybody inside, or the mineral deposit ran out.  The room-and pillar method deliberately leaves about half of the mineral deposit undisturbed in the form of pillars to keep the cavern’s ceiling from landing on your head.  Given that estimated reserves of salt in the Khewra mine run into the several hundreds of millions of tons, and the mine itself produces around 350,000 tons of salt per year, it’ll be a few hundred years before anyone is tempted to start chipping away at the pillars.

Entrance to Salt Mines
Entrance

After the first world war, heavy equipment began to be used, first in the form of steam engines, and then in the form of electricity, produced by two 500 horsepower diesel generators installed in the 1920s. This modernization brought production into the hundreds of thousands of tons annually. At present, the mine’s tunnel network extends about 25 miles through 19 different levels.

 

Despite the immense scale, the mine has struggled financially in recent years.  In order to try to make the mine profitable, the Pakistani Mineral Development Corporation, which owns the mine, has also been working the tourism angle, with considerable success. I haven’t been there, but it looks to be well worth seeing if you happen to be passing through the Punjab region of Pakistan. Wikipedia estimates the mine receives 250,000 visitors a year. The main shaft has now been converted to a tourist attraction. Some of the highlights are:

khewra-mosque

…an underground mosque built from blocks of salt,

 

minar-e-pakistan

… a model of the Minar-e-Pakistan (Tower of Pakistan), built from blocks of salt,

 

food-court

… and, of course, a food court.

 

For the health-conscious visitors, there is a ward with 20 beds for salt-therapy. Many believe that inhaling salt particles in the very sterile environment inside the mine helps with respiratory ailments. Some swear by it, others say it’s quackery. Controversy notwithstanding, it’s certainly affordable. A 2010 article by The Telegraph stated a 10 day treatment costs 42₤ (Currently $52 US). Some critics of alternative health treatment have pointed out that the salt mines are somewhat radioactive. While this is true, the level of radioactivity isn’t much out of the ordinary, according to this research paper.

 

But beyond the development of tourism, since with withdrawal of the British in 1947, further modernization has, for the most part, ground to a halt.

 

This article, from the Seattle Times, addresses the plight of miners in the Khewra Salt mine today.

At Asia’s oldest salt mine, the march of technology stopped generations ago. Bare-chested laborers use hand-cranked drills and gunpowder to blast away the pink and orange-colored rock crystal, lucky if they earn a couple of dollars a day…

 

…Mohammed Buksh works alongside his son Shezad, 24, and three cousins, by the light of a lamp mounted on a gas cylinder. For three years they have been digging the same cavern. It is now about 30 feet high and wide, and 120 feet deep.

 

Buksh complained that the mine management withdrew mechanized rock-cutting and bore machines in 1998 to save money. The team gets 164 rupees ($2.75) for every ton of rock salt excavated. If they work hard, he said, he can earn about $50 a month — a poor but living wage in Pakistan…

 

…“The miners are living in medieval conditions,” said Farooq Tariq, secretary-general of the trade-union-affiliated Labor Party of Pakistan. “They have no advantage from technological advancement. They just use their bodies and labor.”…

 

Muhammed Saifullah Qureshi, the chief mining engineer at Khewra, conceded that little has changed since British times — and that little is likely to.

 

Speaking inside his colonial-vintage office, complete with a polished desk bell for summoning his secretary, Qureshi said it doesn’t pay to modernize because industrial-grade salt produced worldwide is cheap and the mine has been operating in the red for the past 10 years.

himalayan-pink-salt-crystals
$7.63 on Amazon.com
Rock-Salt-Miners
Working for their .014% of the selling price.
Photo by Luke Duggleby

 

It’s rather sad when you do the math. When you pay 8 bucks for 4.5 ounces of this salt at Trader Joe’s, the guys risking their necks underground are making a tad over 1/10 of one cent.

 

 

Before refrigeration, salt’s #1 use was to preserve food. Nowadays, it’s most commonly used, instead, as a flavor enhancer. This is common knowledge. But it’s also pretty remarkable how universally it works. Whether you’re eating a chocolate bar, a serving of steamed broccoli, a steak, a grapefruit, a piece of toast, a handful of peanuts, or a plate of pasta, most people agree that the flavor is improved by adding salt, either during cooking (as with bread or chocolate) or to the finished dish (as with the steak or steamed veggies).

chef-salting-food
So the question arises: How is salt able to enhance such a wide range of flavors?

There are a couple of different mechanisms. 

One is the denaturing of proteins in food. Denaturing is basically a change to the 3D shape of a protein molecule – they go from being tightly folded up to being more just like crooked strands. 


 When the shape changes, the molecules then bond together differently. It’s often visible as a physical change to a food, and it’s most commonly a result of heat from cooking. Think of an egg white. It’s clear and liquid  until you cook it, and then it becomes white and solid. This is because the 3D shape of the protein molecules changed.  Proteins can also be denatured by a strong acid or base, or other chemical elements found in food.


 If you put lemon juice in milk, it curdles.  And some proteins are denatured to an extent by the presence of salt in solution.  So what does this have to do with enhancing flavor?  When many proteins are denatured, aromatics are released.  And of course, our sense of smell contributes to our sense of taste. So when our food has more aroma, the flavors become more vivid. 

This mechanism is relatively minor, though, compared to what salt does really well: cancel out bitterness.

There are 5 primary flavors that we can detect: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. That last one is often described as “savory.” 

Of these, bitterness is the black sheep. Although there are exceptions, most of the time, bitterness is a flavor we try to avoid. We often associate bitterness with a fruit or vegetable that was picked at the wrong time, or a dish that was improperly prepared. 

Just how effective salt is at suppressing bitterness was demonstrated in a scientific study published by P.A.S. Breslin and G.K. Beauchamp. They prepared a a water/sucrose mixture to serve as a benchmark for sweetness and a water/urea mixture to serve as a benchmark for bitterness.  So on a sweetness scale, the sucrose solution was 100, and on a bitterness scale the urea mixture was 100. 

Then these two solutions were mixed together. Text subjects gave the mixture a sweetness rating of around 55 as well as a bitterness rating of around 55. So far, this seems pretty natural and predictable. 

Now here comes the interesting part: they then added some salt to this mixture. Without adding or removing any sucrose or urea, the sweetness rating shot up to around 80, while the bitterness rating plummeted to roughly 11.


The affect is pretty remarkable. And it works similarly with sour and umami.  By reducing the level of bitterness, the rest of these flavors are “freed up” and stand out much more. A good analogy might be a good pair of polarized sunglasses on a bright snowfield.  With the naked eye, the glare tends to drown out colors. But with the dark polarized lens, colors appear more clear and vivid.

Salt enhances flavors through one other mechanism, which is much more obvious. Salt, being one of the primary flavors, simply complements the others very well. Think butterscotch (salt/sweet), soy sauce (salt/umami), or a margarita (salt/sour).

No wonder top chef Jacob Kenedy states that “correct seasoning” is “getting as much salt into a dish as you can without it tasting too salty.”