Surrounded by the sea, it is not strange that Japan started manufacturing salt (‘shio’ in Japanese) by evaporating sea water since ancient times. But soon it was noted that depending on the depth from where the water was collected, the evaporation of the brine, or varying the production methods, it was possible to render a subtle difference in taste and texture to salts produced in particular regions.
Japanese cuisine, which is usually low on spices and oil, benefited from this variation. It was found that the presence of natural minerals in the crystals also added to the difference in taste.
It has been estimated that Japan has over 4,000 varieties of salt. These salts vary in shape, ranging from grains to flakes to flowers.
One of the best known salt is the Shinkai deep sea salt. Manufactured in the Noto Peninsula, which juts into the Sea of Japan, it is said that the water is collected from a depth of 2,000 feet to 3,000 feet.
The presence of magnesium and other minerals give it a sharpness which brings out the flavour in food eaten fresh and raw.
The Enden salt has three varieties of which the ‘agehama’ variety produced in the Noto Peninsula is most well-known. This salt is often used as a cooking salt.
The Agehama method of salt making was declared ‘a national intangible folk cultural asset’ by Japan’s Culture Agency in 2008, to focus on the traditional method as well as preserve the cultural history associated with it.
Or take the Moshio salt, which dates back to the ancient times, when the manufacturer would use dried sea weed or its ash, simmer it in seawater, and dry it further. According to the salt industry, this salt is often used as a finishing salt by cooks.
During the Edo period, it was discovered that by roasting a salt, it could it preserved for a long time. This variety of salt was known as Yakishio. Since it does not dissolve in the food but draws out its juices, cooks often use it for roasting, grilling or even baking.
There are salts which are earmarked for use in vegetables, meat, fish, as well as for use in sashimi, sushi, tempura, etc.
Selmelier Mark Bitterman, in his book Salt Block Grilling, speaks highly of the Hana Flake salt of Japan, which he recommends for salads, fresh steamed vegetables and also as garnish.
Over the years, Japan has also mastered the art of making flavoured salts. Coral salt, citrus salts, turmeric salt, sea lettuce salt, Matcha green tea salt, etc.
According to food connoisseurs, one of the best places to look for Japanese salts is the specialty shop called Ma Suya in Tokyo. They stock over 300 types of salt and more than 500 varieties of related items. It is best to take the help of the experts here to find out which kind of salt is best for your requirement. One of the much praised item here is the Snow Salt, a variety of soft-served ice cream.