Why salt ignites our senses
Salt on the rim of a chilled Margarita, that post dip in the ocean feeling, the endorphins released after working up a good sweat from exercise… or something else…salt has long been associated with pleasure and flavour. In fact, no ingredient has a greater influence on flavour than salt. Used properly, it minimises bitterness, balances out sweetness, and enhances the flavour profile of a dish. So why has it been deemed a guilty pleasure, and why is it so hard to put down?
Salt on the brain
Salt cravings can be as severe as sugar cravings, and theories about our preference for salty goods range from genetic predispositions to evolution itself, but whatever the reason is, it’s been a major contender in our diets for hundreds of years.
If you ever feel that a salty bag of chips influences your mood you might not be imagining it, researchers have identified the part of the brain where salt cravings originate, and consuming salty goods lights up the opioid system in the central amygdala region, i.e., the same part of the brain where positive and negative emotions are processed.
These are the same pathways that respond to painkillers like morphine and addictive substances like opiate-based drugs. That’s right, consuming salt can have a similar release to ingesting drugs, which in short means it can be addictive. Those salt withdrawals make a bit more sense now, don’t they? Luckily our body produces the same naturally-occurring opioids on its own after exercising, having sex or eating good food, or doing all three together….
While the dangers of a high sodium diet are well-documented, hello high blood pressure and heart disease, and the World Health Organisation recommends salt intake of no more than 5 grams per day, there are also side effects to a diet that is too low in salt. Like most things in life, it’s all about moderation, and we need to have a balance of salt in our body to manage bodily processes like controlling muscle and nerve function and maintaining fluid balance.
Suid Afrikaners en sout
The science of it aside, salt plays a big part in South African culinary tradition. Few countries have the same passion for salty red meat, or the same ability to host a good braai, like we do. Whether it’s curing biltong, our national treasure, or seasoning chops for the fire, our relationship with salt is practically patriotic.
Growing up on a farm in Middelburg meant that red meat was a staple in my childhood home, and seasoning was always close behind. Preparing a good salt rub was something I learnt early and is the best way to soften meat and make it juicier. To this day, I’m influenced by the five fingers method.
If you’re not familiar, the five fingers method comes into play when preparing any meat for roasting or braising. Essentially, you dip all five fingers into your saltbox, extracting a generous amount of salt. You then rub your fingers together and massage the meat in question, letting the salt coat the surface of the meat, making sure to get it in all the nooks and crannies. Once finished let it rest for a day before cooking, and you’re sure to be thrilled with the taste.
True to the legacy of our ancestors and human innovation, salt has a beloved spot on our tables, and isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, unless being thrown over a shoulder for good luck of course.