The Story of Salt

The Story of Salt

These are some of my articles that have been featured in the Press. I’m a food columnist for a local daily The Oxford Eagle and a regular contributor to IndiaCurrents, a magazine that caters to the Indian diaspora .


CollagesOEHomer called salt a divine substance. Plato described it as especially dear to the gods. Today we take salt for granted, a common, inexpensive substance that seasons our food or clears ice from road. We casually use expressions like “salt of the earth,” take it with a grain of salt” without appreciating the deeper meaning.

Diamond Crystal – Salt The only rock that we eat has shaped civilization from the very beginning. Its story is a glittering, often surprising part of the history of mankind. Until about  hundred years ago, when modern chemistry and geology revealed how prevalent it is, salt was one of the most sought-after commodities, and no wonder, for without it humans, animals and plants could not survive.

The history of the world according to salt is very simple: animals wore paths to mineral licks; humans followed; trails became roads, and settlements grew beside them. When the human menu shifted from salt-rich game to cereals, more salt was needed to supplement their diet. But the underground deposits were beyond reach, and the salt sprinkled over the surface was insufficient. Scarcity kept the mineral precious. As civilization spread, salt became one of the world’s principal trading commodities.

Salt Route Once upon a time, salt routes crisscrossed the globe. One of the most traveled route led from Morocco south across the Sahara to Timbuktu. Ships bearing salt from Egypt to Greece traversed the Mediterranean and the Aegean. Herodotus describes a caravan route that united the salt oases of the Libyan desert. Venice’s glittering wealth was attributable not so much to exotic spices as to commonplace salt, which Venetians exchanged in Constantinople for the spices of Asia.

In 1295, when Marco Polo first returned from Cathay, he was delighted the Doge with tales of the prodigious value of salt coins bearing the seal of the great Khan. Of all the roads that led to Rome, one of the busiest was the Via Salaria, the salt route, over which Roman soldiers marched and merchants drove ox carts full of the precious crystals up the Tiber from the salt pans at Ostia.

Salt as Salary As early as the 6th century, in the sub-Sahara, Moorish merchants routinely traded salt ounce for ounce for gold. In Abyssinia, slabs of rock salt, called amôlés, became coin of the realm. Each one was about ten inches long and two inches thick. Cakes of salt were also used as money in other areas of central Africa.

Not only did salt serve to flavor and preserve food, it made a good antiseptic, that is why the Roman word for these salubrious crystals (sal) is a first cousin to Salus, the goddess of health. Sal is salt in Latin, which made its way to soldier in French, because at one point soldiers were paid in salt. A soldier’s pay—consisting in part of salt—came to be known as solarium argentum, from which we derive the word salary. A soldier’s salary was cut if he “was not worth his salt,” a phrase that came into being because the Greeks and Romans often bought slaves with salt (pszczola; salt institute).

Salt in Ancient India In early vedic times, salt was a rarity; it does not find mention in the Rigveda, though the later vedas do cite it frequently. Salt quickly assumed ritual significance, and in the Sutras (ancient texts) its use in food is not permitted to students, widows and newly-married couples for the first three days. Salt was obtained from river, lake, sea, swamp and mine. According to Buddhist canon, and its production was a state monopoly under a salt supervisor in Mauryan times (321 to 185 BC). It was also an expensive commodity, inviting no less than six taxes, four to be paid by the seller and two by the buyer. It featured frequently in barter transactions between urban folks and tribal people with no access to salt.

Salt and Superstitions During the Middle Ages, the ancient sanctity of salt slid toward superstition. The spilling of salt was considered ominous, a portent of doom. (In Leonardo da Vinci’s painting The Last Supper, the scowling Judas is shown with an overturned saltcellar in front of him.) After spilling salt, the spiller had to cast a pinch of it over his left shoulder because the left side was thought to be sinister, a place where evil spirits tended to congregate.

Secrets of Salt The social symbolism of salt was painfully evident in the medieval equivalents of the Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette. As late as the 18th century, the rank of guests at a banquet was arranged by where they sat in relation to an often elaborate silver saltcellar on the table. The host and “distinguished” guests sat at the head of the table—”above the salt.” People who sat below the salt, farthest from the host, were of little significance.

The Story of Salt encompasses fields as disparate as engineering, religion, and food, all of which Kurlansky richly explores in his book ‘Salt’. Few endeavors have inspired more ingenuity than salt making, from the natural gas furnaces of ancient China to the drilling techniques that led to the age of petroleum, and salt revenues have funded some of the greatest public works in history, including the Erie Canal, and some cities (Syracuse, New York). Salt taxes variously solidified or helped dissolve the power of governments. For centuries the French people were forced to buy all their salt from royal depots. The gabelle (salt tax), was so high during the reign of Louis XVI that it became a major grievance and eventually helped ignite the French Revolution. Napoleon’s campaign in Russia suffered a setback because of lack of salt. As late as 1930, in protest against the high British tax on salt in India, Mahatma Gandhi led a mass pilgrimage of his followers to the seashore to make their own salt. Which eventually gave rise to complete Independence.

If the importance of a food to a society can be measured by the allusions to it in language and literature, then the significance of salt is virtually unrivaled. Nearly four pages of the Oxford English Dictionary are taken up by references to salt, more than any other food. “A grain of salt” may be a recipe for skepticism. But there can be no doubt about how salt has seasoned our history.

Salted Fish Curry

The vast coastal area of southern India special salted fish curry


  • ½ pound salted fish (sardines or mackerels)
  • 2 cups mixed vegetables
  • 1 cup mixed legumes, soaked overnight
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 10 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 2 large tomatoes, crushed
  • ½ teaspoon turmeric powder
  • 2 teaspoons chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon mustard seeds
  • 2-4 teaspoons oil
  • (vegetables used: squash, radish, eggplant, green plantain and raw mango).


  • In a wide vessel, heat oil. Add mustard seeds and wait till it splutters. Then, add garlic, onions and tomatoes. Fry real good.
  • Further add turmeric and chili powder. Followed by vegetables and legumes. Add two cups of water and cook over high heat for 10 minutes.
  • Add salted fish to this and continue cooking for 2 minutes over medium heat. Once the curry thickens and oil shows up on the top, remove from heat.
  • Serve warm to go with plain steamed rice.


 © 2010 Malar Gandhi,  All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


Leave a Reply


Get every new post on this blog delivered to your Inbox.

Join other followers: