Monday, December 11, 2017

Tasty Talk Series Saltfood: Mining a Guyanese Oral Tradition in Cuisine

I was recently having a conversation with my mother about the value people "back home" in Guyana have for certain kinds of food at certain events. She was informing me of the preparations being made for a popular elder's 91st birthday thanksgiving service, in which there was great expectation of sampling the revered bake-and-saltfish, even though it is a common enough preparation throughout the country. Fried bread "rolls" stuffed with salted codfish stewed with onions, tomatoes, sometimes a bit of hot peppers and a splash of lime juice! *mouth waters*

Bake-and-saltfish is one of those dishes that can be made on a Sunday morning, for a wedding-day catering order, for Christmas morning, and for when folks are visiting from afar/"foreign". It is an everyday for some and a special occasion for others. It is usually the first thing to be eaten out! This does nothing to diminish its value. Salt cod (Bacalao) may be the go-to fish of choice, but I would argue that smoked herring is up there as well, perhaps even more of a specialty, based on price and occasion. Smoked herring was definitely more occasional in my childhood, so when it made an appearance, there was ample cause for heightened appetites and festivities!

Mom went further, however, extrapolating on how beyond celebrations, everyday eating in Guyana required creativity and wisdom. She offered a phrase that although it was my first time hearing it, the concept immediately crystallized in my mind. "What we used to talk about at home was '#saltfood'... which was more than about the salt. It was about getting real food that satisfied, and often stretched what little you had. And you feel fuller with 'something salt'...'real food' was not something sweet. Something quick. Rice and something to go with it." I dunno, sounds like a #foodhack to me!

Aside from acknowledging that high sodium diets has been a known cause for several ailments and chronic diseases worldwide, saltfood is almost an inversion of usage, wherein the main idea was to only add a hint of a highly flavored substance in times of austerity. This is now a two-fold definition. Saltfood is not a mere salted snack to stave off hunger; it is a significant connection to nutrition and economic fastidiousness often expressed in unique yet endemic ways in tropical, warmer and, let's admit it- poorer parts of the world. I remember reading years ago in a history class about how poor principalities in the wide regions of China ate savory breakfasts and had a tiny bit of egg, beans, or pork to balance the vegetables or rice (or other starch) that was their everyday fare. If that was their one meal for the day, the morsel was almost a flavoring instead of a significant part of the plate or bowl. It usually was a kind of protein. Talk about a stretch.

I can definitely say that in my "starving student" days having a small container of spicy-crispy anchovies from Koreatown with a bowl or rice, noodles, or steamed veggies filled me up more than I believed possible. And I keep both on hand now when I'm feeling lazy to do a big spread in the kitchen. It's easy!

Nutrients are at the heart of it, to be sure. Just as actual salt (NaCl, sodium chloride) has helped to flavor food for millennia, making it a prized trade item and a maker or breaker of ancient civilizations, dietary salts are important in human diets because of their balancing electrolytes. Sodium helps the body retain necessary water (remember, we are about 55-60% water, depending on your physicality), facilitates several chemical reactions in many different parts of the body, and helps with digestion and muscle contraction. The Biblical line about people being "the salt of the earth" is telling, in its observance of such a worthy aspect necessary for life.

So in a country where there have been waves of undernourishment due to economic austerity, political unrest, and lack of access to medical treatment due to transportation shortcomings, it is expected that salt would play a large role in the population's attempts to stay satisfied, even as they balanced healthy and not-so-healthy consumption. It has saved people from fainting, in a hurry!

To me, the concept of saltfood is one that walks this line, and acknowledges through a combination of centuries of oral folk medicine and culinary traditions what has been proven and tempered with scientific research in the modern age. So it is still quite useful to roll this word around in your mouth.

As with most terms that falls out of my mother's mouth, I marvel at the variation between succinct and delightfully obscure Guyanese and Greater Caribbean expressions. Such a rich oral history is worth collecting for future use. I will be sharing more of these from time to time, and encourage my readers to corroborate their own regional terminologies and pastimes!

Now that I've defined it for you, what's YOUR favorite saltfood?

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