The Culinary Gene : Salt of the Earth
Too little of it and your food is bland, too much and it spoils the dish— but the right quantity of salt can bring out flavours like no other seasoning can. It balances the sweetness and acidity of ingredients by decreasing the sourness of acid and increasing the sweetness of sugar.
The kind of salt used can also transform the taste of a dish. Take for instance, rock salt— this pink compound can jazz up the plain old nimbu paani (lemonade) in an instant, just as a pinch of sea-salt flakes can make all the difference to chocolate cake or a mousse by intensifying the taste of chocolate.
While humans have been cooking with salt since ancient times, in the last few years, certain revolutionary thinkers (read chefs) have decided to take the salt-food relationship to a whole new level— they have decided to cook on it. Now, you may be wondering how in the world can you cook anything on salt crystal? The answer is— you can’t. We are not talking about the regular table salt or any other crystallised salt, the agent in question is in fact an elegant yet heavy salt slab which is quite pretty in pink. This is the Pink Himalayan Sea-salt.
The name is curious as its history is fascinating. Pink Himalayan salt stone was formed about 600 million years ago, as the great Tethys evaporated. Tectonic activity is said to have sealed the salt in an airtight natural vault where it was subjected to the intense pressure and heat of the deep earth. This process carried on over eons. As the Himalayas rose in their might, and life evolved on earth, the boulders were being formed crystal by crystal growing in might and goodness. The salt is known to have over 84 minerals and trace elements such as calcium, magnesium, potassium, copper and iron. Its colours range from shades of pink to red thanks to the high iron content. It is also considered to be the purest salt on earth.
It is said that salt boulders were discovered in the time when Alexander came to the Indian sub-continent in 326 BC and mining of the Himalayan sea-salt began during Akbar’s reign; the tradition is said to be continuing till date. Today, the salt is mined in Pakistan’s Khewra region, where the rough salt rocks are cut manually by local masons into a variety of shapes—slabs, blocks, bricks and plates—or saltware, if you please. The mine has nineteen storeys, of which eleven are below ground. From the entrance, the mine is 2440 km deep into the mountains while the total length of tunnels is about 140 km. According to estimates, the tunnel would last for another 350 years.The uses of the salt from Khewra are not restricted to cooking, it is also used in bath salts and to make decorative items like lamps, vases, ashtrays, statues.
One of the reasons for modern chefs are experimenting with saltware, is because of the slab’s tendency to hold any temperature for a good while due to its high specific energy. Also, its lack of porosity or moisture makes the plates or slabs perfectly safe for heating or chilling to virtually any extreme. Cooking on them also means the food will be less salty compared to the usual use of salt. And lastly, the high quantity of trace minerals imparts a subtle complexity to the dish being prepared on it.
It is this versatility that makes the salt slab suitable for sautéing, searing, grilling, chilling, curing, baking and salting, not to mention plating food exquisitely! Chefs all over the world, including India, are creating hot and cold dishes using these slabs. From Carpaccio to tenderloin steak to a chocolate walnut brownie, Executive Chef Arzooman Irani of Vivanta by Taj in Whitefield, Bangalore, has successfully created and designed dishes to tingle your palate. However, the successes have followed extensive research and experimentation.
“Once we got the salt, we first experimented with cold food, like making Carpaccio, cooked shrimps and even dessert. However, what we found was that other than the treatment and the saltiness nothing else happened. So, we decided to go even further and tried to cook on the stone,” recalls Chef Irani.
It was then that he began cooking on the slab. Initially he started cooking thin strips of tenderloin, fish, chicken, vegetables, which worked well. This didn’t mean cold foods were put on the back burner— he just improved upon the initial attempt. “We were also not happy just serving dessert on the slab, so we started flambéing the same and that was a hit with the guests.”
Chef Irani’s affair with the Pink Himalayan Sea-Salt slab began three years ago when he chanced upon its use in a SPA. “They were using this to burn spices like clove and cinnamon. I found that interesting and began looking for information on what exactly this product was. For a long time I couldn’t source these slabs. But finally after a year-and-a-half of searching, I found where I could get them from.” Since then there’s been no looking back.
For three months, Irani and his team tried and tested numerous dishes before showcasing their work at Vivanta by Taj in Whitefield, Bangalore.
Some of his prized creations are: Charred Brazilian palm hearts, grilled romaine, micro greens, edible soil, tenderloin and Bloody Mary glaze.
If think you have read and seen enough to want to try out the experience for yourself, head over to Vivanta for a bite. The menu is available throughout the year. However, you will need to book in advance, as the team wants to create a special experience for the diners, one they say will make for fond memories.
Recipes : Arzooman Irani–Executive Chef : Vivanta by Taj- Whitefield,Bangalore
Text : Prerna Uppal
Photography : Sanjay Ramchandran