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Salt: An Ancient Chinese Commodity

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Sauces, Seasonings, and Spices

Spring Volume: 2003 Issue: 10(1) page(s): 33 and 34

Like it or not, everyone needs to consume some salt. Know it or not, the Chinese were early pioneers in drilling, panning, and consuming their share. Salt is a basic taste (as are sweet, sour, bitter, and the newest one named with a Japanese word, umami, which translates as 'savory'). Sodium is one of salt's components, the other is chloride, hence its chemical name is simply 'sodium chloride.'

Chinese salt history probably began with the Yellow Emperor Huangdi. At the least, he is credited with presiding over the first war ever fought over salt. One of the earliest verifiable salt works was in prehistoric China in the northern province of Shanxi. It was at Lake Yincheng in a mountainous and desert area. Chinese historians believe that by 6,000 BCE and at summer’s end, people gathered crystals of salt found in tropical climate areas. These were probably on the edges of lakes and other saline water sources.

Little is known where else salt was first found, how it was used, or even if or how it was exploited in early China. One Chinese record, circa 2,000 BCE, shows preserving fish in salt. Another speaks of an Emperor Yu, a few years earlier, attempting to control and tax salt in his domain. Still another dates different salt usage from about 800 BCE and of the salt trade occurring a millennium earlier during the Xia dynasty (21st century to 16th century BCE). Yet still another says that salt was mined five hundred years after iron was used in China and that was recorded as about 1,000 BCE. Still one more says that Yi Dun, in 450 BCE, produced salt by boiling brine in iron pans.

Some salt production came from underground pools of salty water. From them, the salted water was poured out of long bamboo buckets ingeniously brought up from great depths. One reads about twenty percent of China’s salt coming from famous wells in the Sichuan area near the Fuxi River, a tributary of the Yangtze. The first wells in Sichuan were drilled to great depths in 252 BCE on orders of the then governor Li Bing. He saw to it that they used bamboo piping because it was resistant to rotting and no doubt protected by the very water it was bringing to the surface.

At these same wells some two to three hundred years later, the Chinese used the gas coming from holes nearby and next to where the brine came up. Because it made many workers sick, this gas was deemed evil. A bit later, they figured out that the best thing to do was ignite that gas, and then all illness ceased. The Chinese learned to cook over the flames from the gas. This may have been the first use of natural gas.

In early times, salt was rare and reserved for the Emperor. Early usage by his court was relegated to food preservation. Later, as salt was costly and subject to considerable taxation it was used sparingly. China was not alone in imposing salt taxes. Athens, Rome, France, Mexico, and others did, too. Today salt is tax-free, inexpensive, commonplace, available to all, it can be had in many colors, kinds, and crystal types. That is a big change from early salt usage.

Did you know that salt cakes were once money? Circa 1300 CE, salt was more readily available and that unusual tender went out of fashion. However, in those days while it was less difficult to acquire, it was still tough to collect its taxes from producer to consumer. Taxation certainly was as ancient at its earliest acquisition, using it as money a more modern usage.

Collecting monies to transport this economically precious commodity began about the 20th century BCE. Using it as money came three thousand years later. One historian wrote of forty-two different taxes collected just to take salt across the entire Hubei Province. He did not mention what a cake was worth, as money or for anything else about its economics.

As a government monopoly, elite salt merchants were selected and authorized to collect taxes on salt. They made a bundle and became rich. Suzhou''s famous gardens were built by salt merchant families. Many, among the forty thousand or so in the salt trade were corrupt. Strange Tales in a Chinese Studio (1877) by Herbert Giles is one of the best books to detail early Chinese salt trading. If you can locate a library with a copy, do read it.

These days, Chinese people consume a lot of salt, one report says more than twenty pounds per person per year. In the United States, about three-quarters of that amount is ingested and that amount is thought to be unhealthy. There are major differences in how and where salt is eaten, how much is actually consumed, and also in where salt is found.

High in the Gobi desert in Golmud which is in China’s northwest province of Qinghai, there are twenty salt lakes and the government is planning to build many industries involving salt and salt-lake chemicals there. At the largest inland salt lake in the world, Lake Qarham, they are already producing lots of salt. Uses for this or any salt in China and in the United States differs. In the United States a large amount of salt is found in canned foods, in packaged products, and in otherwise commercially prepared commodities. And, it is poured extensively and in large quantities on foods at the table. Diners do so just before eating.

This type of use was unknown in early China, and hardly done today. The Chinese main use was and is for preserving vegetables, salting fish, and pickling and preserving all types of animal flesh. Rarely in times of old did they or do they now put salt on foods at the table. This idea of producing saltiness through direct use of salt is uncommon and uncalled for in China. Instead, the Chinese use numerous salted condiments, the most important today is soy sauce.

For some years, salt had a bad rap in the Western world. Not so for the Chinese in or outside of China. Times have changed and nowadays some in the United States say that salt may not lead to high blood pressure, that is, unless a person is sodium sensitive. The University of California (at Berkeley) Newsletter, says it still makes sense to consume less than 2,400 mg per day. That amount is a little more than a teaspoon, and it is about twice what American Dietitians recommend. Nonetheless, do not shake your salt cellar with abandon because all too many food manufacturers already did. Their products are loaded with salt.

Salt is not the same as it was in yesteryear. Most is now purified removing other minerals. The World Health Organization and UNICEF urge salt producers worldwide to add iodine to their salt to avoid a disease called goiter. This disease produces an enlargement of the thyroid gland and because of iodine’s addition, the disease is virtually eliminated. In many regions of China, they also add selenium to their salt. The purpose is, they say, to reduce cancer and heart-related problems.

In 1998, the Chinese government's Salt Corporation sealed the last well in the Sichuan Province. They ruled that salt from there was sub-standard. Nearby in Zigong, they still produce a little because people long for salt that is more irregular, less pure, and certainly without iodine. They say that the iodine gives their pickled products a peculiar taste. Many people in the United States, refrain from using iodized salt, as well, not appreciating the taste and texture of the resulting pickled products.

In China, they illustrate poor results with iodized salt and mention Larou, a traditional and popular pork dish made by curing pork. It, they claim, tastes better when made with salt that has no iodine. The Chinese make Larou by cutting pork into pieces and covering it with naturally mined unadulterated non-iodized salt. They add some spices and leave the pork a week, then wash it well to remove any residual salt. The pork is hung over a charcoal fire, with or without peanut shells and sugarcane used as the fuel, and they smoke the pork for two days.

Chinese do not salt their food at the table because they believe that producing the salty flavor is the job of the cook, not the consumer. Most salt in their food comes from adding one or more jiang or fermented sauces. The cook adds one or more of them, be the food he or she is preparing one hundred percent vegetarian or made with fish or meat. Years ago, the earliest fermented sauces were actually made with meat. They were not made with soybeans. Traditionally, the meat was layered with salt in earthen jars or pickled in brine. The best way was to put the animal flesh between layers of salt, then seal it. Soybeans added to these sauces came lots later, and when they did begin to be used, they were first added to fish, then fermented together. This was called jiang yu.

The earthen jars of fish and salt were sealed then placed in a sunny location for some days then moved to cooler places, often inside the doorway of a house. There, they could be doused with buckets of water should the weather or the temperature of the jar get too hot. The jars would stay a year or two, or more, and then be unsealed when/as needed. Not wanting to waste a thing, liquids taken from these jars were the earliest fermented sauces. They were used to flavor foods cooked or marinated.

In the Sichuan province, many different vegetables were also pickled in salt or brine. They still are. These staples can be made two very popular ways, pao cai or zha cai. And they have been for at least three thousand years. Both techniques are still in use, and the vegetables preserved these ways taste great and are great appetite stimulants.

To make pao cai, vegetables are washed and dried somewhat, then put into brine and kept a day or two, not much more. Then they are rinsed and served plain or cooked with other foods. The zha cai method is more complex. The vegetables need to be washed and dried, then layered salt, vegetable, salt, etc. This is done in earthen jars that are sealed and left to pickle, which is another name for the fermenting process. Made this way, zha cai can stay for years. Some farmer families put up an extra jar each year for each girl in the family. They want her to take them with when she gets married.

Not all jars are sealed. Some, particularly the vegetable ones, are only covered with fabric or a plate. As such, they need attention every couple of weeks. The cloth or loose top on them needs to be removed and washed to get rid of a harmless white topping called kahm, the yeast forming there. After removing it and washing the cloth and/or the cover, the vegetables are covered again. The role of salt in this and all pickling is important. Without it, the carbohydrate or protein in the food putrefies. One result can be an alcoholic product, another can be a lethal one.

Eggs were and are also put up in salt. Some are soaked in brine, then put into mud and straw. Others, soaked or not, are packed in salt, ash, lye, and sometimes tea leaves. The mud/straw ones make for gelatinized eggs with a deep orange yolk. The ones packed in ash and lye produce eggs with a blackened white, a greenish yolk, a strong aroma, and a mild flavor. You may know these as pi dan or 'thousand year' eggs. You may have read about them in Irving Beilin Chang’s article in Flavor and Fortune called 'Duck-boys, Duck-eggs, and Egg Chemists' in Volume 9(1) on ages 9 and 10, or elsewhere.

In actuality, the eggs are ready to eat in ninety to one hundred days. The time misnomer may have started with an early mistranslation. Westerners put a comma after three zeros, the Chinese put theirs after four zero''s, so hundred day eggs were called thousand year eggs.

In China, some companies are making new generation salt products. One such is 'Balanced Nutrient Salt' with calcium, magnesium, iron, and other minerals. Some also make a very white 'Snowflake Salt' that is low in sodium. The company that makes that salt also makes a sea salt called 'Solar Salt' that is intended for pickling vegetables. They make a 'Palace Salt' from the sea water of the Fujian province. This salt, they say, is not bitter even though it has boron, silicon, manganese, and other minerals in it. Another salt they produce is ''Tibet Salt'' which is a product with fifty-six different element components. This salt is mined, they claim, without pollution and from the highest tablelands in the world. For industrial use they make ''Salt Bricks'' for animals and ''Snow Melt'' for use in frozen environments.

New or old, xian means salty. It is the most used flavor and a central component of Chinese food, no matter province or place. At meals, salty Chinese dishes are contrasted with bland ones. To bring out sweetness and moderate sourness, the Chinese believe there is need for salt. In ancient times, tea was prepared and drank that was made with salt and ginger. It was particularly popular in the Sichuan Province. Russians in some areas drink their tea that way today, having learned it from their Chinese neighbors. Perhaps the Romans learned things from the Chinese, too. Apicius prescribed honey added to a salty dish and Pliny used salt to correct things overly sweet.

Chinese chefs add soy sauce to other fermented sauces to help make dishes with the right amount of saltiness. Commercial soy sauces are saltier than ever and they are hydrolyzed using a chemical process. They are usually made from soy refuse left after soy oil is removed. Good artisanal soy sauces are made the ancient way, from whole soybeans. Better soy sauce companies age their sauce to mellow the product while ordinary factories make soy sauce quickly and cheaply. They are all not the same. A future issue will review aged soy sauces that are not bitter as are many of the low-salt products now on the market. It will compare many that are richer and more complex. Agd soy sauces are the best way to season your Chinese food with xian, a salty taste.

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