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Salt: In China and In Chinese Foods

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Sauces, Seasonings, and Spices

Fall Volume: 2011 Issue: 18(3) page(s): 20 - 23

In China, salt impacts the foods of this longest continuous food culture by increasing many flavors. Considered the king of condiments and one needed to survive, many wars have been fought over salt. One thing about this condiment in Chinese food is that no one at the table fights over the salt shaker. The Chinese do not add nor do they enhance their dishes at the table using salt. So what roles in China's dietary does salt have?

Some two hundred thousand years ago, the Three Gorges area looked different. The Sichuan Basin became land and much sea water was condensed providing underground pools of brine. This salty sea water pre-dates China's many thousands of years of using salt. Archeologists identified salt works in China and claimed they date back to 6,000 BCE. Perhaps they are even older than that.

Salt has a long history worldwide; for those who want to know more about, we suggest reading, among other items, Mark Kurlansky's Salt: A World History. Considered definitive and detailed, his overview of this taste enhancer does discuss early profits from salt on China's southeast coast in the Three Gorges area. He also speaks of other places, such as in Sichuan, that were major salt providing areas. In his book and others, one learns that salt financed China's Great Wall and more. Salt does make for fascinating history.

Emperor Huang Di presided over the first war in China fought over salt. Other early salt facts include that salt was traded during the Xia Dynasty (21st to the 16th century BCE), written about in the Peng Tsao Ken Mu five thousand years ago, and it was mined in the Sichuan Province circa 3,000 BCE. Incidentally, that ancient volume discusses forty different kinds of salt.

Early reports detail fish salted in wooden containers and salt used for funeral offerings. Salt is mentioned in the Annals of Emperor Yu (2205 - 2197 BCE), and used by Tibetan monks who then and now mix it with tea and yak butter to make their tsampa. This beverage made with highland barley includes lots of salt and it is eaten as a meal or served with other foods.

Early salt was made and sold, some crystalized and collected by dragging and gathering, others sold after pan drying. Known to Mencius (372 - 289 BCE) who both sold it as is or as salted fish, salt was used to make soy sauce as early as the 6th century BCE. Twelve hundred years later Chinese Buddhist missionaries exported it to Japan. Li Bing, in 252 BCE in the State of Chi which is now modern Shandong, found salty brine seeping from underground pools. When he did, he ordered drilling to extract it.

Salt was important in China, and it still is. In early times there was no problem of pipe corrosion when extracting it because salt does not rot bamboo, the pipe used to get it to the surface. Nowadays, though salt is still extracted from wells, more is dried from the sea water and lakes such as Qinghai. That lake is a huge body of salt water, China's largest among the twenty-eight in the area called China's salt basin. The salt from it is crystalized, popular, and easily sold.

There are many types of salt worldwide, China no exception. Most common is rock salt which is usually gray. Table salt, often refined rock salt, is lighter in color. Kosher salt is rock salt mixed with lime. Curing salt, another kind of rock salt is mixed with six percent sodium or potassium nitrate. And there are other kinds of salt.

People and animals need salt to survive, vegetarians more than carnivores. Foods need salt for preservation. During the Han Dynasty, Emperor Wudi and the Chinese leadership were salt shareholders. In 119 BCE they developed and controlled a salt sales monopoly or que mai restricting ownership of all salt making. At that time, the Han Salt Administration was set up; it paralleled other central and local government administrations. Huge profits were made from the monies collected from salt as it traveled to market.

In early times, salt traveled on the cha ma road in China's southwest as did other valuables such as horses, teas, grains, silks, etc. On its way it was taxed. Taxation of salt is not new, but in China it was a monopolistic practice, one that began before the 12th century BCE. It was also important because salt revenues supported the government. When salt crossed the Hubei Province there were forty-two places where a salt tax was collected; so it was in other provinces, too. This tax disappeared for about six hundred years, but then it reappeared during the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 CE).

As salt traveled along ancient salt roads, it made many merchants wealthy. One of these roads was in Yunlong in the Yunnan Province; there were others. Some of the salt was quality brine crystalized from wells and packed into bags for the trip. Some of it did became less salty along the way due to leaching in the rain or due to unscrupulous merchants who diluted it with ground white or light-colored rocks.

In Nuodeng, salt was brought to the seat of the Yunlong Five-well Salt Taxation Department. Villagers regarded this as their well. An early picture of a salt well appears with this article. People there, and then, thought the salt gathered here was thanks to the goodwill of the Dragon King. He is the king of water in Chinese mythology, so when they dug their wells here, they built altars in the mines to worship him.

Nuodeng salt was so popular, the government mandated a certain amount of sea salt sold along with it. The price they set was high and based on salinity and brine quality. The two hundred or so families living here were allowed to sell their excess buckets of salt or trade them in stock-market fashion. This they did until the wells were nationalized; they were shut down in 1995.

Why did they shut down these salt wells? The Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources of Yunnan did a survey in 1990 and found in Nuogeng alone, there was a huge reserve of salt. As the marketplace was oversupplied, mostly with sea salt thanks to improved mechanical drying techniques, they did not want to lose any profitability.

China and Japan are the world's largest consumers of table and other rock salts of any countries. Not counting salts of potassium nitrate, also known as saltpeter, salt can be mixed with sulphur and carbon to make gunpowder. This is one of the earliest uses of salt in China, as was salt was to seal barrels of food making a hard crust sealing out air. This kept the contents from absorbing moisture and it helped preserve foods stored and shipped in these barrels.

Salt, used in soy and other sauces. Note the Derrick Brand illustration here; it is a salt well and the character jing which means 'well.' As sauces,is one of the ways salt is exported. The Chinese and Japanese use lots of salt when making the myriad of sauces they use at home and ship overseas, and they use lots of salt when pickling and preserving foods for domestic use and for export. One use known in the early days that is no longer fashionable nor acceptable, is putting live frogs in a barrel with a heavy brine and pieces of wood floating on top. Sealed with a hard salt crust, when these barrels were opened, usually six months later, the frogs were found perched on the wood reaching for air; they were dried out and dead, their small stomachs a delicacy.

More common these days is to use salt to cure pork, often with spices such as Sichuan pepper. Within a week, this cured meat, called la rou, is ready for two days of smoking over peanut shells, sugar cane waste, or cypress leaves. Then it is ready to eat plain or cut up and used in prepared dishes. Lots of raw fish is preserved with salt, too. Years ago, it was common to place the fish between layers of rice. After some months when deemed ready for consumption, the rice had liquified and was removed from a spgot at the bottom of the barrel. It was sold as fish sauce. This was discussed in Volume 15(3) on page 6. Nowadays, Chinese add iodine to their salt to prevent goiter, add they add selenium in regions where the soil is deficient in this mineral. Selenium keeps hearts healthy.

There is much more to learn about salt and Chinese food. This can be done at China's salt museum in Zigong in the Sichuan Province. Set up in 1959, this museum has lots of drilling equipment and other salt-related artifacts. Some are from the Han Dynasty, others more recent. They can be seen there and much can be learned there. In Taiwan, a salt museum was set up in 1998. It is in Yancheng Village in Tainan County. Besides the many salt-related items there, outside this museum it is fun to climb one of two huge mountainous salt piles next to it. Steps are carved into these salt mountains making it easy to get to the top.

On the culinary score, blaming salt for medical problems such as high blood pressure is declining. There are other minerals including magnesium, chromium, even calcium that contribute to this problem, as does having too little potassium. Some say the latter is a more serious problem than too much sodium. More body fat means higher blood pressure and that is more problematic than is salt.

Salt is used by Traditional Chinese medical practitioners to combat excessive bleeding from the gums. They recommend salt and vinegar to relieve stomach pains, for sore throats, also for cataracts. These practitioners also suggest frying salt until brown then mixing it with warm water to offset food poisoning. It is important to note that they do not believe everything about salt is good. In the Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine, they will advise that salt travels to the blood and those with blood diseases should avoid all salty foods. They also say salt is bad for edema, particularly when it associated with nephritis.

In the Chinese culinary, salt is one of five main food tastes. The others are sweet, sour, bitter, and pungent. Not just salt is considered having this food association. Other foods in this taste category include abalone, bean leaves, black mushrooms, black seaweed, carp, eggplant, all sauces, dried persimmons, gingko, pig kidney, prawns, and sea urchins.

It is important to note that there are no standards for the amount of salt in soy sauce or any sauce or packaged food. We recommend reading labels and comparing brands as there can be lots of salt in some brands, lots less in others. The sauce that usually has the least amount of salt is oyster sauce, but even in this sauce, there are big differences between brands.

Enjoy the following Chinese recipes, each benefits from salt.
Rice and Mustard Greens
2 cups long grain rice
3 Tablespoons sesame oil
1 Tablespoon mustard seeds
1 and 1/2 cups salted mustard greens, chopped
salt and pepper, to taste
1 cup chopped ripe tomatoes, optional
1 Tablespoon sesame seeds
1. Put rice in a rice cooker or large pan with three cups cold water, cover, and steam for twenty minutes. Then let it rest another twenty minutes. Next, fluff the rice with a fork and transfer it to a bowl and wash the wok.
2. Heat oil in the wok or a fry-pan, add mustard seeds and stir-fry half minute before adding the rice, the mustard greens, and salt and pepper to taste; and we recommend two teaspoons salt and half teaspoon of ground white pepper. Stir well.
3. Put this mixture into individual rice bowls, top with tomatoes, if using, and a sprinkling of the sesame seeds, then serve.
Fish Soup, Hunan Style
1/2 pound fillets of haddock or another white fish
2 Tablespoons Chinese rice wine
1 Tablespoon sesame or vegetable oil 2 yao tai, a fried cruller, sliced
1 Tablespoon sesame seeds, lightly crushed
1/2 cup shredded lettuce
1 scallion, minced
dash ground white pepper
2 teaspoons coarse salt
16 Tablespoons salted rice and mustard greens, optional
2 teaspoons Chinese rice vinegar
8 cups chicken or fish stock
1. Cut fish into two-inch pieces, and cut each of them in half horizontally. Then toss them gently with the rice wine and set aside for ten minutes.
2. Heat oil in a wok or small fry pan and fry the slices of the yao tai on both sides, about one minute on each side, until crisp, then remove them to a large serving bowl. Fry the sesame seeds for one minute and remove them to the same bowl.
3. Next, fry the fish for one minute and remove it to the same bowl, and add the shredded lettuce, scallion, pepper and salt, vinegar, and two tablespoons salted rice and mustard greens, if using them.
4. Bring the vinegar and the chicken stock to a rolling boil. Pour it over all of the ingredients in the bowl, let it rest one to two minutes, toss, then serve.
Salty Chicken
1 whole chicken breast left on the bone
1/4 cup coarse salt
2 Tablespoons oil
1 teaspoon five spice powder
3 slices fresh ginger, smashed
2 shallots, minced
2 cloves fresh garlic, peeled and minced
2 scallions, minced
1/2 cup chicken broth
1 sprig fresh coriander, minced very coarsely
1. Boil chicken breast covered with cold water for half an hour, then remove it, discard the water, and let it cool. When cool, soak it in one quart of water mixed with the salt, covered, and refrigerated for two hours.
2. Chop chicken and set it out in a low-sided bowl or on a platter.
3. Heat oil, add the five spice powder, and stir-fry for one minute. Then add the ginger, shallots, garlic, and scallions and continue to stir-fry for one to two minutes, but do be careful not to burn these ingredients.
4. Add chicken broth, remove it from the heat source and pour it over the cold chicken. Sprinkle the minced coriander on top, and serve.
Chicken Thighs with Spicy Salt
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
5 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
1/2 fresh hot pepper, seeded and minced
2 teaspoons Shaoxing or another Chinese rice wine
1 teaspoon sugar
4 chicken thighs, chopped into five to seven pieces each
2 Tablespoons cornstarch
1 Tablespoon potato starch or instant mashed potatoes
2 cups vegetable oil for deep frying
1. In a wok or fry-pan, add the tablespoon of vegetable oil and the garlic and stir-fry for half a minute before adding the salt, soy sauce, and hot pepper pieces and stir-fry another half minute. Remove these ingredients from wok and set aside on a small plate to cool.
2. Mix wine with the sugar and toss with the chicken thigh pieces before adding the cornstarch and the potato starch or instant mashed potatoes. Toss until the chicken pieces are covered with the starch mixture, then set them on a cookie sheet and allow them to dry for one hour.
3. Heat oil for deep frying, then fry half the chicken pieces until crisp about four minutes. Remove them and drain on paper towels. Fry the rest of the chicken pieces the same way. Then put both batches of fried chicken on a platter, and serve.
Fish with Tree Seeds
1 teaspoon sesame oil
4 small whole fish, gutted, scales removed, and dried with paper towel
1 Tablespoon Chinese rice wine
1 small can or jar pickled cucumber, liquid reserved
1 small can or jar tree seeds, liquid reserved
2 Tablespoons shredded pickled ginger
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
1 scallion, coarsely minced
1. Spread oil on a heat-proof flat bowl with sides.
2. Brush fish, inside and out, with wine, and put it on the platter.
3. Mix three tablespoons liquid from the pickled cucumbers and three tablespoons of liquid from the tree seeds, the ginger and salt and pour this over the fish.
4. Mince three tablespoons pickled cucumber and sprinkle on top of the fish. 5. Steam for ten minutes over boiling water. Drain and discard half the liquid, sprinkle what is left with scallion, and serve.
Shrimp, Olive Kernels, and Smoked Duck
30 small shrimp, peeled, veins removed and discarded
1 teaspoon coarse salt
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon sesame oil
dash ground white pepper
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
2 teaspoons olive kernels
1 thigh smoked duck, skin removed and discarded, thinly sliced
1 clove fresh garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
1/2 red or green pepper, seeded, cut in half, then thinly sliced
1/2 fresh chili pepper, seeded and thinly sliced
1. Mix shrimp with salt, cornstarch, sesame oil and white pepper and stir well before setting them aside for ten minutes.
2. Heat wok or fry pan, add oil and lower the temperature. Add the olive kernels and stir-fry them for one minute being careful not to let them burn. Drain them and set aside.
3. Add duck, garlic and both peppers and stir fry for two minutes, then return the shrimp and the olive kernels to the pan and stir them just until heated through, about one minute. Remove everything to a small platter, and serve.

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