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Edible Rocks?
 
Edible rocks? We all know about birds eating rocks to digest food, and crocodiles eating rocks to sink to the bottom (like a rock!). But we too? Yes, we too need our rocks. Chances are you've already had some today. It's the only rock we eat. We don't just eat it, we use it for many other things. It is the source of chemicals which are ingredients for making plastic, glass, paint, pesticide, explosives, fertilizers, soap, paper and what not. And we've been eating it for thousands of years. During the medieval ages in Europe, it was known as white gold. It was one of the first materials to be used as a currency. It is still used as money in Ethiopia. It was so valuable that the Romans used to pay their soldiers with this rock. In fact Roman military camps were build around places where this rock was available in abundance. It contains minerals that our body cannot produce, and is hence an essential nutrient. We rarely cook anything without using it. With such a long list uses, not wonder it so essential to human civilization.
 
You guessed it right
If you haven't guessed it by now, the rock is 'salt', and when the Romans used it to pay their soldiers, they named the pay - 'salarium argentum' or as we simpletons call it - 'salary', and it is always less than what we deserve. Hence the term 'worth his salt', which apparently very of us are. We don't say 'worth her salt', because till recently we didn't pay women much, in salt or anything else for that matter.
 
Without it we DIE, or at least lot of people get in to a lot of trouble
Everyone HAS to consume salt, or else YOU WILL DIE.
So it's obvious governments try to control it to death...and people get killed over it! The ancient Chinese were the first to impose a tax on salt. Imperial Chinese empire created a government salt monopoly, and made major money from salt taxes. No wonder they were so powerful. But they got greedy and excessive taxation was one of the reasons for downfall of China's Imperial government. Salt taxes supported Imperial British as well. Excessive taxation of salt played a part in American revolutionaries kicking out the British. French kings also built their own salt monopoly. Salt taxes were 140 times the cost of production (yes, its not a typo, 14,000% tax on salt!!) And that resulted in the French Revolution (people were furious; they were okay with 13,000% but couldn't take another thousand percent increase!). The Russian Czars too had a taste for salt taxes and so were kicked out in the Communist revolution. In our very own India, Mahatma Gandhi used it as a symbol of resistance to the British Empire, which eventually led to the freedom of India. Napoleon lost at Waterloo not because it was very cold, but because he ran out of salt used to treat wounded soldiers.
 
Excellent Evil Repellant (therefore logically a Bush attractant)
What about religion? Well it's very silly (and not the adorable kind of silly). Okay you mean salt AND religion. Among the three Middle Eastern faiths - Jewish temple offerings (like our 'prasad') included salt. The Christian church used salt in purification rituals and Jesus referred to his disciples as 'salts of the earth'. Islam asks its followers to eat salt before and after each meal, for its beneficial properties. By the way, it might be a distraction, but I can't help noticing that Islam prohibits over-eating and bad food habits; while Americans gobble up all the junk food they can get and are going through an epidemic of obesity. Could it be the reason why Muslims have trouble liking America? Probably a ridiculous idea, but hey its my website; I say whatever the xyz I want to say :)
Buddhism considers salt to an even spirit repellant, and hence the tradition of throwing salt over the shoulders to ward of evil spirit. Shinto religion used salt to purify an area. Sumo wrestlers (sumo wrestling is actually a Shinto rite) sprinkle salt in the ring before a fight, to drive away bad spirits. In a Hopi Indian legend (not us, the ones Americans call Indians; I mean they call us Indians too, but the ones they first thought were Indian) an angry warrior punished mankind by putting salt deposits far from civilization. I know it is a bit silly, but it is a good story!
It is not just a coincidence that the largest producer of salt today is also the most powerful country on earth - USA. And you thought it was just an inexpensive salty powder!
 
Its that important, really.
However, salt was not always so important. 10,000 years ago we didn't even care much about salt. I mean we did, but we didn't know that we did. You see, farming is a recent phenomenon. Before that we were hunter gatherers (I use the term 'hunter' politely, as we were mostly unglamorous scavengers). Yes we ate fruits and nuts, but we also ate a lot of meat, and that's where we got all our salt. When we started farming, our meat intake went down and vegetable intake went up. Fruits and vegetables contain no salt (salt is toxic to plants). So we needed external sources of salt to supply our essential daily quota. We need a minimum of 2-3 Kg of salt, each year, for our survival. That's how the whole story of salt started.
And it's not over! We store nuclear waste material in unused salt mines, which will hold them for millions of years in the future. Not only that, with the economy going down everywhere, including the price of gold and oil, salt price has doubled in last one year. The humor TV show host Steven Colbert joked that we should all sell our stocks and invest in salt; sacks full of salt. He might not be too off the mark here! If there is anything humans cannot live without, it is salt and water. No wonder when you are dehydrated you are given salt water, and we all know about saline injections.
So is salt the life-blood of the human race? Yes, even literally! Our blood flows through our veins due to plasma, which is nothing but salt water.
 
I read somewhere that a site with too much text (or what I call 'content') and too little pictures is 'boring'. So definitely that alarmed me to end. To spice up things, here some photos of the wide variety of salts from all over the world.

 

Viking Salt.

A cool Himalayan Rock Salt Lamp

 

Our famous Indian Black Salt or Kala Namak.

Salt Bricks

 

Hawaiian Pink Salt.

 
 
A little food talk and cooking
Now lets talk a little about cooking. I mean it is kind of a must on a cooking site, but a pinch of it (specially since the topic is 'salt') would be sufficient. You disagree? Here's what a pinch of salt will do:
    *      Remove bitterness from overcooked coffee.
    *      Make cream and egg whites whip faster and fluffier.
    *      Make milk stay fresh longer.
    *      Prevents sugar crystals forming in sugar icing.
    *      Make a leech stop sucking your blood (somehow the salt in the blood has no such effect)
    *      Lick it off your finger and eat it (everyone does it, don't know why??). Not the leech, I meant lick the salt!
    *      And how can I forget - throw it behind your shoulder to ward off evil spirits
    *      Sprinkle on Tomato, melon, and other citrus fruits to improve flavor
    *      Add to sweets to balance the sweet flavor
 
Lets talk a little bit more about cooking.
 
Although we use salt for cooking, salt itself is immune to cooking. Salt stays pretty much... salt. It makes no difference how much you fry, boil, bake or steam. It does not chemically react with any food item. It just sits there doing nothing. It does not matter much when you add salt, at the beginning of cooking, in the middle, at the end, or when you start eating. It tastes the same. It's all in our head. As long as there is the right amount of salt, you can add it any time. What has an effect is if you use salt to draw out moisture from food BEFORE cooking (usually with meat, fish etc.). However, to be frank, I always add salt at the end or while eating, for practical reasons. Water usually evaporates while cooking and intensifies the saltiness and if I added early on I can't tell how salty it will be in the end. But that's just me. If you know how much salt is enough, it doesn't matter. Some people say that that salt looses it flavor during cooking - NOT true. There is nothing in salt, (table salt, kosher salt, rock salt, sea salt, or whatever) which is chemically affected by cooking. That is exactly why it is used to preserve food as well; it doesn't react much to anything.
 
In spite of its nonchalance, salt itself is used as a cooking medium. One method involves an ancient Chinese method of encrusting food in dough of salt and flour and cooking it in it. The food is sealed and prevents moisture from evaporating. It also forces the seasoning to permeate deeper in the food, as it is hermetically sealed from escaping. A similar method is to encase food (usually fish or meat or poultry) in a pile of salt. This is similar to the Chinese salt dough method. The solid salt also absorbs some fat when hot, thereby reducing fat content of the food. An ancient Mongolian warrior cooking style was to coat meat with layer of moist salt before cooking. This caused a cement like layer to form over the food and had to be broken with a sword! These kinds of salt coated cooking keeps the meat/fish moist and flavorful. Surprisingly it does not make the food salty at all, and you may even need to use a saltshaker to sprinkle extra salt while eating. Coarse salt is best for such cooking.
 
A simple little salt cooking recipe
Here's a simple recipe for Salt Cooked Fish (it's not a Indian Muslim dish, or even an Indian dish, but its good, so why not!)
 
Ingredients
    * 1 Kg sea fish (Clean the insides, keep whole)
    * 2 1/2 tbsp tarragon
    * 1/4 tsp black pepper (freshly ground if available)
    * 1 lemon (cut in thin slices)
    * 500 gms rock salt
    * 1 1/2 cups flour (maida)
 
Method
    * Clean fish in cold water and dry with towel. Brush inside with 1/2 tsp each of dry crushed tarragon and black pepper
    * Arrange lemon slices inside the fish stomach
    * Preheat oven to 250°C. and lightly oil a baking pan.
    * Mix 2 tbsp tarragon, the salt, and flour. Add warm water to form a moist paste (like wet sand in a sea beach).
    * Wipe a baking pan with some oil and lay a layer of salt paste. Then place the fish on top and cover it with rest of salt paste. 
       The fish should be completely covered in salt paste. Pat it on the fish to remove any gaps.
    * Cook it in the oven for 30 minutes.
    * Now the fun part. Take it out and invite your guests to watch you break open the crust (like breaking open a cast). Use a
       hammer, or knife, or screwdriver, whatever you like, and remove the top layer of the crust.
    * Now scoop out the fish and serve
    * Garnish with onion, lemon and cilantro leaves (I hate the sour taste of lemons in fish, but somehow everyone else likes it!)
 
Note: It is SUPER IMPORTANT that you only use the best fresh fish for this dish. If you can't find fresh fish, go cook something else.
Tell me if you didn't like it. If I don't hear from you, I'll assume you loved it :)
 
Mini-Trivia: Tarragon is not very popular in India, but it is native to India. It was widespread in ancient times, but lost favor somehow. Recently it is rising in popularity again due to western influence (it is a staple of French cooking). However, no one seems to know the original Indian word for it, and we just call it by the western name tarragon. It is known as tarkhun in Iran, where is also grows natively. If anyone knows the Indian word for it (any Indian language) please drop me a line.