Juliet Coombe learns how danger is the salt of pleasure and spices up her cooking style in a fish baking master class with Nalin Nanayakkara Jetwing Yala’s innovative executive chef.
Early morning we headed off to Kirinda Harbour to buy mullet for our cooking class with Nalin Nanayakkara. Nalin has experimented with cooking in mud, the sand dunes and many other things, but feels salt infused with spices as a baking material has far the best results. Back at the hotel Nalin had us mixing spices with a mountain of salt and then packing the fish in until it was ready to bake for 22 minutes in the oven.
As our fish cooked we had a chance to find out more about salt as a cooking material. Amazingly this benign looking product has an extremely colourful history that will amaze you. Apart from embedding itself in cultural phrases like ‘they are the salt of the earth’ and ‘danger is the salt of pleasure’ and biblical metaphors for good people, it has been regarded in the past as the essence of good tasting food with wars being fought over it, governments being toppled over it and countries revolting over taxes on it. Indeed, it is thought that the French Revolution was partly owing to the salt tax, which after being repealed was re-imposed by Napoleon and only abolished in 1945. Gandhi in India, famously led 100,000 protestors, in 1930, to the obtain it from the sea to avoid paying tax on it as well as using it to inspire rebellion against British rule, which he finally helped to overthrow.
Salt’s known history goes back some 8,000 years when, in Romania, they boiled spring water to get it and on Xiechi Lake near Yuncheng in Shanxi, China, there is a salt works still producing to this day that dates back that far. Salt has been pivotal to civilisation throughout history and an important trade article, transported around the Mediterranean Sea by boat, along specially built roads and through the Sahara on camels.
How did we manage before fridges were invented? In the case of meat and fish, they were and sometimes still are wrapped in salt and when cooked in a bed of salt, provide the most delicious meal. Sri Lanka is blessed with both being surrounded by sea so no shortage of supply in salt there and having lots of sun and warmth, the two primary requirements of making sea salt – they simply have to channel the sea into inland lagoons, called salterns such as the ones at Hambantota, Bundala and Palatupana, and wait for the sun to evaporate the water and crystallise the salt, which takes around 40 days. It is then scraped up and left underneath a covering of coconut leaves before being crushed and packaged.
Sri Lanka consumes around 150,000 tons of salt per year and is curiously not yet self sufficient in it, but plans are afoot for it to be so by 2020 and even Jetwing Yala are getting in on the act as they are planning on creating their own salt spiced up mixes to sell. Who knows we may see a whole new style of food dishes with salts such as smoked, black pepper, chilli, garlic, curry and lemon & thyme coming onto the market.
Much more can be said about salt that would fill whole books and without it, there would be no life, so join the salt of the earth and get creative like Jetwing Yala chef Nalin has using salt as a unique cooking method by infusing it with island spices and baking the fish inside it. Once baked the fish was taken out and the kids were allowed to break it open sending salt flying in all directions as if they were hacking away at an ice block, but always being careful not to break the fish skin in the process, which would let the salt from outside get into the white succulent flesh. Once the salt had been removed the exterior skin and scales of the fish was peeled back and enjoyed with a variety of exciting curry saucy sauces. Making a truly salt of the earth moment!