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A Taste of Salt — Marakkanam, Bar Nuts, and Roasted Tomatoes

2012 September 25

“There must be something strangely sacred in salt. It is in our tears and in the sea.”
—Khalil Gibran, Sand and Foam, 1926.

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Driving down the East Coast Road that links Chennai to Pondicherry, barely out of reach of urban sprawl that reaches farther and farther each year, in between land still green with rice fields and land cleared for residential developments called “Palm Meadows” and “Queen’s Avenue,” one comes upon the salterns of Marakkanam.

Marakkanam appears another random point on the ECR, but it’s also the end-point of the South Buckingham Canal: a colonial waterway channeling backwaters between there and Chennai, and extending North all the way to Vijaywada in Andhra Pradesh, about 420 kilometers away.

It’s a desolate stretch that runs through the town. Only rudderals that survive the saltiest soil grow there. All else is brown and shades of grey—or brilliant white under the ferocious sun which dries the salty backwaters into fleur de sel for elegant tables elsewhere. Even the workers with their dark brown skin and bright nylon saris appear dull in the presence of all that brown-white-grey: small, incidental figures in a vast landscape of bare saline plenitude.

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Marakkanam interests me for three reasons.

1. It connects big and little.

Small objects and common commodities often carry remarkable historical weight. Consider the ways this most mundane and common of daily ingredients is fundamentally central to the history of the world as we know it:

It shapes our political geography. Cities and towns are named after salt (Salzburg is a prominent example). Trading routes were once dotted by salt manufacturing sites; salt marketing was once big business along the Atlantic seabord. Salt was critical to the development of cheese-making and food preservation that expanded fisheries, the possibilities of maritime travel, and much of our now-global diets. Before there were spice routes and the silk road, there were saltways. Control of salt once assured vast wealth, mercantile domination.

It defines our worth and value, what we aspire to be; it is a metaphor we live by. Roman soldiers were once paid partially in salt—a salarium (today’s “salary”) as an allowance for salt or a payment for guarding the Salt Roads into Rome. And so also do we speak of “being worth one’s salt.” Salt signifies healthfulness: sal-ubrius and sal-ut are references to salt. Salt metaphors exhort us to keep the faith, as in these well-known lines from Matthew 5:13: “You are the salt of the earth: but if the salt has lost its savor, how shall it be salted? It is thereafter good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.”

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It gives us the language of political discontent. The French salt tax (La Gabelle du Sel de Nice, instituted in 1458) and the salt smuggling that resulted helped foment the discontent that built into the French Revolution (the tax was abolished in 1790). By the 1900s, salt was indisputably essential for both rich and poor, so much so that the British monopoly on and taxation of salt in India gave Gandhi both metaphor and rationale to famously march to Dandi in protest, establishing the value of satyagraha (non-violent protest) and self-rule in one fell swoop.

It defines Empire. Greater Inagua in the Bahamas is today dominated by Morton Salt, which produces millions of pounds annually. The economy of the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat owes considerably to salt production. We are divided still on questions of how much is too much at the dinner table, but we can’t question the centrality of salt to our healthcare (think: saline), metallurgy, winter road safety, paint, food, and so much more. And we needn’t be divided at all on the fact that our common salt is the stuff of which world histories are made. [But read this smart review of Mark Kurlansky’s Salt: A World History.]

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2. There is a human story at its base.

My anthropological preoccupation perhaps?

India is the world’s third largest producer of salt after China and the US. About 70% of the approx. 19 million tons annually produced comes from the western state of Gujarat. Indian salt production is labor intensive, engaging some 150,000 workers daily, the majority of them in the scorching Gujarat desert. Marakkanam produces 50,000 tonnes of salt annually from 3,300 acres, owned largely by small producers. A model farm with greater mechanization is being organized.

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What are the lives of those who are steeped in salt, literally in the corrosive, scorching evaporation ponds raking out crystal salt? Now that large-scale manufacturing and packaging processes have been well-honed to extract uncommon value from common salt, salt is among the world’s cheapest substances; mercantile empires are built from other things these days. And yet salt is a functioning empire without which we cannot do. What sort of labor does that empire command?

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The women I met to chat with one afternoon en route to Pondicherry were a chatty, jovial lot, quick to remind me of how busy they were hauling baskets and building salty mountains–though they had time to be photographed and to gawk at their own images. Men rake earlier in the day and women haul until sundown; each can only take so much daily exposure to salt. Wages are meager, whether workers are independent or hired by traders. Labor is seasonal: salt needs the sun to crystallize, and the saltpans lie fallow during monsoons. Health and other work safety precautions are poor. Blindness is a common problem, working for full days in the glaring heat. Persistent skin lesions on hands and feet are another, along with blood pressure issues and urinary sodium excretion. Marakkanam workers are generally organized by community/caste-based collectives; the efforts of NGOs in the area have resulted in the registration of some 600 Marakkanam workers with the Tamil Nadu Government’s Welfare Board for Manual Workers.

Where does all this salt go? I asked, wondering if the women knew, or thought about the empire they were serving. But they were quick to set me straight, laughing: To towns without salt [uppu illaada uuru], of course.

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3. It raises a problem of art and aesthetics.

This one requires explanation. It has bothered me for a while now that blogging about food invariably involves gawking at it. Food stylists perfect the art of setting up illusory scenes with beautiful colors and props; food imaging is now an art industry in itself. Established bloggers tell you that good photography is key to success, and there are entire blog-and-magazine-reading communities devoted to the voyeuristic consumption of food—food porn, as some call it (I dislike the descriptor, though it makes my point for now). Text and stories are important, but not nearly as important as the images in this attention deficit, time-deficit, visually oriented culture of ours.

Now I can’t claim not to participate in this culture, as creator and consumer of said “porn,” and I’m unabashedly happy when people claim to drool over my creations (who wouldn’t be?).

But that’s only a wee tiny bit of the food story, and I never want to forget that. Salt helps to jog my memory of all else that’s involved in the story of food, precisely because it connects little to big, human lives to empires.

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Herbert Marcuse, a leading figure of the Frankfurt School, said it all in 1937. Art, he suggested in an essay titled “The affirmative character of culture,” contains the capacity to produce illusions of beauty and happiness in the present, ‘entire counterfeits of transcendence.’ Through the beauty of art, we suspend our discontentment; art makes beauty appear possible even within conditions of oppression such that it “pacifies rebellious desire … Men can feel themselves happy even without being so at all.” And so it is that we have the “rapture of inner plenitude alongside external poverty.”

How does one enjoy, treasure, and exhibit with care the inviolable beauty of food, even of food production, without forgetting its wider, often harsher realities? Even the images of workers in a salt-dominated landscape can be lovely–because there are those moments, and struggle is no uniform thing, and because it’s easy, in the return to laughter, to forget oppression. What does it take remember, in the midst of beauty–and think ahead to gastronomical pleasure, in the midst of scorching toil?

What is the taste of salt trodden under the feet of men?

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My graduate school friend and Professor at the University of Oregon, Lamia Karim, suggested that one way would be to sit with the women and ask them their stories. I started that last time at Marakkanam, only to be reminded that work couldn’t pause because I happened by, and that there remained quotas to fill before sunset. Perhaps, on each successive trip up and down the ECR through Marakkanam, I’ll stop when they’re there for as much more of the story as there’s time to share.

For now, two gustatory offerings as homage to the women workers at Marakkanam, who work so that we may live a truly salted life.

Roasted Salted Tomatoes

Roasted Salted Tomatoes

Ingredients

1/2 lb cherry or grape tomatoes, the sweeter the better
2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon dried basil (or other dried herb of your choice)
1/2 teaspoon crushed rock salt, or to taste
1 tablespoon mixed fresh herbs (basil, thyme, bit of rosemary, or oregano)

Instructions

  1. Set your broiler to 350F/180C
  2. Cover a large baking sheet with foil
  3. Dump your tomatoes in the middle of the sheet, and drizzle the olive oil over them, then the dried basil.
  4. Toss gently and spread the tomatoes out. Do not crowd them.
  5. Put under the broiler and roast for about 15-20 minutes, or until browning and gooey.
  6. Remove tray from oven; allow tomatoes to cool.
  7. Toss with rock salt and then with the fresh herbs. Adjust salt to taste.
  8. Et voila, roasted salted tomatoes -- great to have around to throw into salads, pastas, omelettes, or to serve with bread and cheese and a leaf of fresh basil.
http://www.paticheri.com/2012/09/25/taste-of-salt/

Salted Bar Nuts

Salted Bar Nuts

Ingredients

Approx. 2 cups mixed nuts, in whatever combination you have or like
1-2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary (or thyme)
1/4 teaspoon red chilli powder, or any milder equivalent (cayenne, for example)
1/4 teaspoon freshly crushed black pepper
2 teaspoons brown sugar
2 teaspoons good quality sea salt

Instructions

  1. Spread out the nuts in a large baking tray, and toast in a preheated 350F/180C oven for about 10 minutes.
  2. If you don't have an oven, dry roast in a skillet or kadai for about 10 minutes. Transfer to a separate heat-proof bowl.
  3. Melt the butter in a/the skillet or kadai you just emptied, and add all remaining ingredients
  4. Add the roasted nuts back to the butter mix, and toss over a low flame.
  5. Adjust taste: spice, sweet, saltiness.
http://www.paticheri.com/2012/09/25/taste-of-salt/

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24 Responses Post a comment
  1. September 28, 2012

    Such a wonderful post! Love the pictures and the thoughts that went into it. Salt has been on my mind, because of a paragraph I’ve been trying to write and just can’t crack. Seeing this post today has reminded me that the universe is full of tiny glowing markers.

    • September 28, 2012

      What a beautiful image is that, a universe of tiny glowing markers. It’s funny, but I’ve had your “Nine Postcards from the Pondicherry Border” open all day, waiting for a breathing moment to take it in better than I did the first time. The glowing marker was there for me, too, in the phrase I almost instantly memorized: “[between] the Tamil village and the international commune.” It’s not precisely that inbetween-ness, but something quite akin that places like Marakkanam also exemplify … Though I was more aware of it than those heckling women, who divided the world simply into towns with salt–and towns without.

      • September 29, 2012

        What an interesting, poetic way to divide the world – towns with salt, and towns without…. 🙂

        • October 1, 2012

          That distinction rather captivated me, too. So simple, so old-world (in the sense that there was very much a time when distinguishing those who had and hadn’t any salt was paramount), and so powerful a balance to the other distinctions we now hold paramount. Wish I’d been able to do more with it in this post. Next time.

          • Monica Walia permalink
            October 4, 2012

            Found your paticheri page on facebook! I can see the larger view of the graphic 🙂

      • Monica Walia permalink
        October 4, 2012

        Wow, towns with salt and without. That’s really interesting–I’m taking urban sociology this semester so that fits right in.

        Deepa, can I ask–did you create/draw the graphic at the top in the Paticheri header? It’s really neat, I wish I could see an enlarged view/higher resolution of it.

        • October 5, 2012

          Glad you did find the Facebook page. I’d love if you’d “like” it, too. And thanks, yes, that little food cart was a sketch I did–among the first of what eventually became the vector graphic recipe illustrations on the site. They are ubiquitous on Pondicherry’s beachfront promenade, and anyone who’s ever visited here will invariably associate them with the experience of a visit. I’ll have to do a post on the beachfront someday — food is standard, but the walk through is always fun. You should come sometime!

  2. Maria Curtis permalink
    September 28, 2012

    This is lovely Deepa, just beautiful. I was mesmerized by all of the photos. This makes me long for a book with similar stories and images on all of the new “designer” salts I see in new colors, pinks, roses, grays….So glad the bowl from Turkey has proven its worth in salt 🙂 “Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all.” Nelson Mandela

    • October 1, 2012

      Thank you, Maria. The image of all these variously hued gourmet salts makes me think an addendum to this post may come once I’ve managed to gather samples. There’s a restaurant (or more) devoted to the experience of salt which I saw once featured on Modern Marvels, but I can’t recall where. And yes of course the little Turkish bowl is much-treasured, entrusted with the tastiest of our salts : )

  3. Satya permalink
    September 29, 2012

    Lovely pictures and post! Have driven by so often and never bothered to ‘see’!

  4. Bridget permalink
    September 30, 2012

    I love this blog post, and it will definitely be printed out and shared with (i am so old-fashioned, but I want to make sure the students see it!) all of my classes next week. At the beginning of the semester, I had the students in the Intro to Anthropology courses evaluate and analyze products based on what is seen and what is absent and the symbolic and literal meanings behind both so this post illustrates these concepts perfectly. Thank you Deepa for bring awareness to these women’s story!

    • October 1, 2012

      So glad it resonated Bridget! Would love to know any feedback your students have. Do ask them to come over and lend their voices to this song!

      • Courtney Jameson permalink
        October 27, 2012

        Hello Deepa,

        I am also a student from Bridget’s class. I really enjoyed this blog. It interest me enough in wanting to know more about salt. The pictures look so rich, I almost wanted to stick my hand through the screen and grab one of those roasted tomatoes. I didn’t know salt had such a impact on the world. Also, how the control of salt was once assured as vast wealth, mercantile domination, that is amazing. Salt as you dicussed, has a very powerful meaning. I would have asked the same question, “where does all this salt go”? Looking at the pictures, it would be hard to believe that they use all of this salt. I went home and I tried making the roasted salted tomatoes, I don’t depend on salt as a major recipe, but the tomatoes came out great. Ingredients were very helpful, and I really enjoyed them.

  5. Monica Walia permalink
    October 2, 2012

    Hi Deepa, I am a student of Bridget’s (above)! This is a gorgeous, rich blog…and an incredible post (I will be digesting for days and weeks), one which I feel poorly qualified to respond to… but I love the points and imagery you raise… “the salt of the earth” and the women of the Marrakanam… big and little… and also the paradox of watching one’s sodium intake and yet needing electrolytes/saline. As I read you refer to the concept of being worth one’s salt, the Hindi phrase “namak halal” came to mind… one which I’m vaguely familiar with as a second generation Indian American and don’t use often, but which *instantly* fired up in my brain seeing it here in English… it’s funny how we seem to measure our humanity in terms of salt across cultures… salt is part of the human bloodline!

    Thanks and will be visiting regularly!

    Monica

    • October 2, 2012

      Monica, it’s fascinating how salt is like smell in evoking memory, isn’t it? Namak halal and namak haraam–loyalty to or biting the hand that feeds you. Wasn’t there also a movie called Namak Halal? I’m sure there’re other associations; if you think of them, do post. And by all means and without hesitation, stay in touch. It’s always fun to have new voices and perspectives added to the mix. The salt of life!

  6. Chrisitna Gonzalez permalink
    October 3, 2012

    This article has brought awareness to an otherwise unknown issue for such a common product that everyone uses on a daily basis. Although I will not stop using salt, I will remember the people that put so much work and effort before hand, every time I see or use salt. I feel that you gave “the behind the scenes story of salt” a more humanistic quality and allowed the workers to have a voice. I had no idea that salt could cause so many healthy problems, but the pictures with vast amounts of salts made it easier to understand. It was also nice to see that the women being interviewed were asked where the salt is sent, the women laughed and replied to the towns where they don’t have salt. It was nice to see that although they seem to have hardships with working in salt mines, they have a happy attitude. It not only brought awareness and understanding, but made me become more grateful. Thank you for your work.

  7. Nohely G permalink
    October 3, 2012

    Love the blog especially because I would have never thought of salt as “shaping our political geography” or the history behind it. Never would have I thought about the women in India in the work that goes into the production of salt. Thanks for your insight. (I am a student of Bridget)

  8. October 4, 2012

    Christina, Nohely: Thank you for the kind words & for checking out the post. I’m warmed by the thought that you found them meaningful and that they inspired gratitude. I suppose that’s what I find most intriguing about food: in the end, it’s not only my hands that shape it. It decenters us and reminds of wider universes which give us all we have.

  9. Maria Chairez permalink
    October 8, 2012

    Hey Deepa very interesting stuff, next time I hold a salt shaker in my hand I’ll know how it came about. Had no clue what these women go through just so we can add flavor to our food. I just imagined a large factory packaging the salt in containers but not how it got there. I thought it is unfair to see fellow women being exposed to a product that is so small that needs to be seen through a microscope and that can lead to health problems in these women. But at the same time I see how they go to work everyday because this provides a meal for their families when they are paid for their labor. Thank you for providing these articles for those that do not know what happens out in far places.

  10. October 11, 2012

    What is the taste of salt trodden under the feet of men……

    I’ m looking forward to your works of poetry and food, to your collection of essays….

    Salt is vital for life, and living! Thank you Deepa

  11. C.Eaton permalink
    April 18, 2013

    This is a really neat thing to see. I have wondered how salt was collected from the ocean into the bottles that we use it in. I can’t believe some of these women are barefoot when one of the captions said it’s scorching and it must be to evaporate the salt from the water. I loved the pictures! Mounds of salt! I have never seen this before and the way it is portioned off into such large squares is kind of neat but I also especially liked the corresponding recipe! Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  12. Tyan Hutchinson permalink
    September 7, 2015

    WOw!!!! Such an amazing story, and beautiful pictures. I have always wondered where salt came from, never thinking that it looked like this. These pictures say 1,000 words….absolutely amazing. I showed this to my children. Thanks so much for sharing.

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