Now that I’ve got that classic stuck in your head, let’s talk about salt and pepper shall we?
These two just might be the most basic, most rudimentary, most overlooked spices in my pantry, and yet they are to me the most fundamental.
Especially salt. Without salt, food lacks flavour, lacks pizzazz, no matter how well you’ve cooked it how preciously it was grown. Salt seasons, preserves, breathes life into food. I still remember staging for Suzanne Goin at Lucques; she tasted the dressing I’d made and even though I’d followed her recipe, it was missing something. I trembled as she tasted it.
“It needs salt,” she said, plunging her hand into the crock on the counter and almost snapping a few big pinches into my bowl. It seemed like too much to me, but once I taste it, I knew she was right. It didn’t need more parsley, more pomegranate molasses or even more olive oil. It just needed salt. Suddenly my bland dressing was vivid.
I remember my “aha!” moment when I switched from table salt to kosher salt; suddenly I felt like seasoning my food was in my control. The coarser granules didn’t slip through my fingers willy-nilly. They helped me cook a thick, cracklin’ crust on pieces of seared meat. The salt didn’t have table salt’s slight chemical aftertaste. And heck, it made me feel like a right gourmet cook, modeled after all those I’d seen on the Food Network, who dunked their perfectly-manicured nails into a vessel of kosher salt, then, hand high in the air, let loose over their dish in a flurry of salt flakes.
Bren and I have managed to acquire quite an array of salt since then: fine sea, Maldon coarse, Hawaiian Black Lava, Himalayan pink, Celtic sea… one day, in a fit of food geekery, we sat down with a couple of glasses of water and the bounty of our salt collection before us. Then, one by one, we tasted each salt, followed by a gulp of water, trying to figure out whether the food-erati were right about one salt being better than another.
I was so surprised to encounter that they were right! There are vast differences in the flavours of salt! Kosher was sharp, almost medicinal. Himalayan was mellow, cleaner, a little earthier. Celtic sea did indeed taste a little brinier, steeped with the slightly fishy kiss of kelp. Hawaiian black was very earthy, almost ashy. Indeed, I was so amazed at the results that for a little while after that, I’d only cook with Himalayan pink salt, my favourite from the taste test. It took a little getting used to, since I was so used to eyeballing Kosher’s larger grains. Eventually though, I went back to the kosher salt, out of convenience more than anything (and probably out of cost concerns).
Which brings me to black salt.
Not very black, I grant you. This particular kind of black salt is called “Kala Namak” in Hindi, which means… black salt (not to be confused with Hawaiian black lava salt). It has a flavor all its own. Dunk a moistened fingertip into it and taste — you might screw your face up in dismay, look up the heavens, shake your fist and scream, “why aarti whyyyyyyy?!!!!!!!”
At first taste, it really does taste like something bad is in your mouth. It’s that strong eggy-ness that turns people. Eggy, salty, sour, almost metallic. Who could possibly want to use this stuff?!
Well, it’s a bit of an acquired taste, I grant you. But if you’ve ever enjoyed any Indian chaat (snacks), then this is the flavour that you might be missing when you try to recreate it. It’s usually the last flavour left ringing in your mouth, a decidedly UP note that will leave you smacking your tongue to the roof of your mouth in satisfaction as you reach for another handful.
Black salt provides that bit of tang that Indians are besotted with; think lime juice, tamarind, vinegar, amchur (dried mango powder), lime pickle. We love to make use of our sour tastebuds. Perhaps its because it’s a bit of a palate cleanser, a flavour that breathes a little space between the threads of the sometimes heavy blanket of those warm, overpowering spices like cumin, coriander and garam masala.
Its distinctive flavour comes from a complex furnacing process that perfumes the salt with iron, charcoal and sulphur compounds; the iron gives it that metallic flavor, charcoal gives a dark hue (when whole, then when ground it turns pinkish-lilac) and the sulphur compounds… well, that’s the eggy taste for you.
I love sprinkling a little black salt on freshly grilled corn, or over salads. It’s one of the key ingredients in “chaat masala” a spice mix that is used most often to season, um, chaat (Indian snacks). It’s a new discovery, I grant you, or at least one I hadn’t bothered much with; we didn’t use it much growing up, so I wonder if it’s more of a Northern/Bengali spice than a Southern one. But try it on your salads, or even on your popcorn. Just a little will do you until you get a little more adventurous.
Let’s move on to pepper shall we?
You may have heard me say this before, so if you have apologies. But in India, we don’t season food with black pepper usually. No, we use black pepper as a spice in and of itself. That’s why you’ll often see exact measurements for “black pepper powder” in traditional Indian recipes. We love pepper’s heat and fire, the way it plays so well with cumin and garlic. I still season with black pepper because of living here in the States, but every now and then, I like to give pepper its due, and feature it as a spice all by itself.
To that end, I’d like to introduce you to Tellicherry peppercorns, if you haven’t heard of them before. They hail for the coastal town of Tellicherry, in Kerala, and I love them because they are probably the sassiest peppercorn you’ve ever tasted!
Grind it fresh and you’ll encounter a spice that will indeed put a little pep in your step: fruity, fiery, with a more complex flavor that your everyday ground pepper.
In fact, can I ask to throw away that preground pepper? Invest in a pepper grinder, and grind whole peppercorns fresh every time. Pepper’s fieryness is a bit of a tough-guy front — as soon as it’s ground, its flavor dissipates. If you want to experience pepper in all its frisky glory, then you must try it fresh!
I bought these peppercorns from a shop called the Spice Station here in LA, but you can find them on most online spice purveyors, and I would urge you to go ahead and treat yourself to a little bag. They’re usually not that expensive, but once you get a little taste of these, I guarantee that your eyes will widen with surprise and glee, and you’ll be hooked. I particularly love these little beauties sprinkled over scrambled eggs. Oh boy. Black salt and Tellicherry peppercorns: Such a simple way to add some excitement to your food… EVERYDAY!!