LUANG PRABANG, Laos — Nowadays salt is, by weight, the cheapest ingredient you can buy at your local supermarket, easily available everywhere and accessible to everyone.
However, this was not the case in the past. From the beginning of civilization to our recent past, salt was a commodity worth a fortune, at some times even its weight in gold, and a key component of trade. Not only that, it also had huge political impact, resulting in the rise and fall of empires, being one of the main sources of government revenues as well as a permanent reason of social discontent.
The need for savoury arose when humans moved away from a meat-only diet, and started consuming salt-poor cereals and vegetables. Its limited geographical availability, as it was obtained mainly from salt pans, seaside brine or mined underground, made way for a flourish in profitable trade. Salt caravans criss-crossed the continents and gave birth to cities along the way, such as Timbuktu in Mali and other wealthy ports as well as caravanserai on the Mediterranean coast and in Central Asia.
Romans took the making and distribution of salt to a new level, by leaving a footprint not only in geography, like the Via Salaria, the main road connecting the capital to the salt pans by the Adriatic Sea, but also in language — soldiers were paid partially in salt, salarium argentum, a term that stayed in English and became “salary”.
Its symbolism grew not only in language but also in popular superstition and religion: the Old Testament is full of ritualised uses of salt, always a central part in offering and sacrifices, but also rubbed on new born babies to symbolise purity. Nowadays, spilling salt is still considered to bring very bad luck, and the only way to avoid it is to throw a pinch of it over your left shoulder. In many cultures sprinkling it in a new home or after a funeral is a sure cure against evil spirits and curses.
Salting is an easy way to preserve food and this also changed the face of travelling, allowing for transcontinental sea ventures that effectively connected the entire planet. Dried and salted cod fish became one of the major exports of the New World colonies back to Europe, and resulted in the lasting culinary heritage of Portuguese bacalao and its 365 recipes.
The rise of the nation-state gave way also to the increased taxation on salt, usually controlled by government monopolies. And these monopolies and the subsequent discontents gave rise to rebellions, like the French gabelle, a much-hated tax that fuelled La Révolution or the rightly-remembered March of Salt, when Gandhi crossed the Subcontinent and defeated the British prohibition by boiling sea water to produce salt, effectively beginning a non-violent movement that toppled the mighty Empire.
Industrial production and the demise of monopolies worldwide changed completely the picture, with increased outputs and current costs an infinitesimal fraction of the past. Therefore, now one is left to wonder if someone not worth his salt is, well, not worth at all.
If you want to read a fascinating story, you might surely enjoy Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky the New York Times bestseller.
And if you were not to use salt for cooking, what would you do with it? Some individuals have taken the use of salt to a whole new level. If you think you have seen it all, check out these large-style salt installations created by a Japanese artist.