Taste kala namak for the first time, and it’s like an explosion of wonderful, astonishingly eggy umami-ness on the tongue.
Also known as kala loon, pada loon, birenun or Himalayan black salt, among other names, this versatile salt is used in a wide range of dishes in India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and other parts of Southern Asia, imparting flavour as well as saltiness (try it in the aloo chaat below). The salt has also been traditionally embraced by Ayurvedic medicine on several fronts, including as a digestive aid.
And more recently, it’s become a favourite in vegan kitchens for its ability to add ‘eggy-ness’ to everything from tiramisu to tofu scramble.
If you haven’t used it before, there’s one thing to keep in mind: it tastes much, much better than it smells!
“It tastes very good but it smells very terrible,” says Saurabh Prabhakar, chef and owner of Newcastle’s award-winning Sapphire Indian Restaurant.
Stick your nose into (or perhaps, cautiously sniff!) a packet of finely ground Himalayan black salt and you’ll discover the distinctive sulphury odour the salt is known for. Some bags and bottles are more pungent than others – not surprising in a natural product. Luckily, the smell dissipates when its used in cooking, adding savoury notes without the stink.
“I love black salt,” says Prabhakar, who uses it in the restaurant, and at home. At Sapphire, you’ll find it in one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes, chicken 65 – a fried chicken entrée with 65 ingredients, including various spices and salts – and stirred into raita.
At home, he uses it in salads, sprinkles it on fruit and stirs it into juice. “Normally I drink orange juice in the morning, so I'll add a little teaspoon of black salt to the orange juice,” he says, explaining that he finds it actually makes the juice taste sweeter.
“And if you add a little teaspoon of black salt to a glass and add lemon squash or Solo, it really tastes good. That's how we drink at the restaurant, all the staff members. It’s also said to be a hangover killer!”
The Sapphire staff favourite sounds like a cousin to TV chef and cookbook author Anjum Anands’ Shikanji granita. “Shikanji… is the name of a popular lemon drink that is sweet, lightly tangy and gently flavoured with a little roasted cumin powder, black salt and mint leaves. It is really refreshing and moreish. The reason salt was added was to replenish that lost in long, hard days in the sun and the cumin helps cool the body as does the mint,” Anand says of the lemonade-like drink popular in northern Indian and Pakistan that inspired her easy granita recipe.
Chef Shannon Martinez, of Melbourne’s hugely popular vegan bar and eatery Smith & Daughters and deli-café Smith & Deli uses black salt in everything from tiramisu to her famous tofu scramble (not in Melbourne? Never fear – you can make it yourself; get the recipe here).
“When you're replicating egg products, it gives that sulphuric flavour that really is so distinct to eggs. You can easily make something look like a product, but to give the actual proper flavour, nothing seems to quite fit the bill but black salt.”
“Currently at the restaurant we're using it in a vegan carbonara. We use it in our scramble at breakfast, which we've had on the menu since we've opened. At the deli, we use it in our egg and bacon muffins for breakfast and our egg salad sandwiches – that’s my favourite sandwich! And my Mum’s too.”
Black salt also brings an egg-like note to the zabaglione in her tiramisu, and in vegan mayonnaise.
All of these uses are in dishes, not sprinkled on top – the smell can be too intrusive, she feels. “If someone opens the container of it in the kitchen, you can smell it from a couple of meters away. Not a particularly a good smell, especially when it's not in context … it’s better to put it in things, so you can allow everything to blend properly.” It’s also why she prefers the finely ground salt, rather than the chunky crystal form it’s also sold in.
Martinez buys her salt from local Indian grocers. “Don’t buy it from health food stores!” she says – it will cost a lot more.
“The Indian grocer is the best place to get it from. You can get it in bulk, it’s cheap and it's no fuss. And I like to generally find my products from the place where they originate.”
Prabhakar, too, uses the powdered form – which is usually pink.
Although kala namak is widely referred to as black salt, it’s not exactly black. The chunky crystals are black-brown-reddish, with the colour variations reflecting the minerals in it. When ground, it’s a pale pinkish-grey colour. (Despite the colour, like other salts it’s mostly sodium chloride – as this Choice review points out, the mineral levels in gourmet and specialty salts are very low, so salt is not a realistic source of essential minerals).
The finely ground form is the easiest to use – just make sure you get the right black salt. “Many other salts are called ‘black salt’ but that doesn’t mean they have an eggy flavour,” writes popular vegan author Isa Chandra Moskowitz in her new cookbook, I Can Cook Vegan. As well as in dishes such as her tofu omelette – “If you haven’t tried it [black salt] before, and you love the taste of eggs, you are in for a real treat!” – she also loves sprinkling it on avo on toast.
Rowena Frith, owner of online salt retailer The Salt Box, who sources her black salt from Pakistan, says she has noticed an increased interest in the product, which she attributes in part to the growth in vegan cooking. And, she says, once they get past the smell, a lot of people discover they love black salt. “They get totally addicted to it!”
“You can really put it on anything. It adds another dimension of flavour. People do put it in tofu. But also try roasted vegetables or something like that. And you have to sprinkle a little bit on eggs if you are not vegan – it’s amazing. It’s actually one of my favourite salts.”
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