Pahadi coloured salts, an ancient tradition, are finding takers in cities

The list of coloured salts found in nature is a fairly long one. There is, of course, the pink salt from the Himalayas, there’s another pink found only in and named after the marshes of Camargue in France, a blue salt in Iran, a black lava salt and a grey variety from Brittany.

When it comes to man-made varieties, there’s no end to the colours and flavours you can try. Some types have been popular in the West for decades — garlic, bacon, ginger-lemon. In India, you don’t have to pick at random. We actually have an ancient tradition of flavoured salts.

They’re called pisyu loon (ground salt, in Garhwali and Kumaoni), and are typically made in flavours of mint, mustard, ginger, coriander, garlic, cumin and three types of chilli (yellow, red and green). In the Pahadi cuisine of Uttarakhand, making these salts is a vital skill. Because in winters, when the mountain villages get snowed in, it’s sometimes the only thing left to be eaten with roti or paratha.

Now, this flavoured salt is finding takers in the cities too. Over the past two years, women from Dehradun, Nainital, Haldwani and Khakhrighat in Uttarakhand have begun selling the salts online, via platforms such as Instagram and e-stores like EjaaFoods and PahariViraasat.

Typically, the women work within self-help groups or with NGOs. Some are using direct channels to keep prices down. Rekha Kothari and the NGO Mahila Navjagran Samiti, for instance, sell flavoured salts via direct message on her Instagram handle, @namakwaali.

“It’s used as an exotic seasoning on salads, fruits or dishes like dal and aaloo sabzi. Some salts are also used to liven up raitas, chutneys and lassi, or in the marinades for meat,” says Birendra Matiyali, founder of Ejaa Foods. “Yellow chilli, pepper and garlic salt are our bestsellers. The yellow chilli is native to Uttarakhand and has a uniquely pungent flavour.”

Most demand comes from Delhi-NCR, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Amritsar, Pune, Chandigarh and Jammu.

Root flavours

Delhi ad executive Pankaj Singh, 43, says he likes the salts most in dals. “They change the entire flavour. I use black pepper-garlic salt most. I also sprinkle the salts on boiled eggs and use them in mashed potato,” he says.

Shubhangi Parmar, 28, an HR executive from Pune, who has been using the salts for three months, says they could be less salty. “I absolutely love the citrusy flavour of yellow chill salts on my chopped fruit. I keep trying new recipes and I have begun to include pisyu loon in my sabzis,” she says. “But I wish they weren’t quite so salty.” We tried four varieties and found her criticism to be well-founded.

The use of rock salt is the reason for the strong salty flavour, says Deepa Khanayak of Himalayan Flavoured Salts, which retails via Ejaa. “Himalayan pink salt is not as salty as the sea salt. But it is much more expensive.”

Puneet Dewli, 30, an advertising executive from Mumbai, says he uses a jeera-chilli-mustard salt on his raitas and salads. “For me, it is a way to stay connected to my roots, because I’m originally from Rudraprayag in Uttarakhand. I’ve lived my whole life in Mumbai, but you hear of this tradition in the family, even today,” he says.

This is thing that distinguishes the salts from the various food fads that come and go, says culinary anthropologist Kurush Dalal. “It’s not a gimmick or an experiment. It’s a rediscovery of something that has deep roots in our culture.”

Changing menus

Meanwhile in Khakrighat village of Uttarakhand, Khanayak and about a dozen other women are making and packing 18 varieties. Their most popular is the hing-jeera-pepper mix. Marketing and logistics are challenges that are holding back expansion, Khanayak says. “Some ingredients, like Timur [Sichuan peppercorn], are seasonal. We can’t provide it in summer, and so we lose orders,” Khanayak says.

Customers in the cities aren’t used to seasonal varieties, and don’t like not knowing what’s on a changing menu. To remedy this, and reach out to more potential customers, Ejaa, for instance, is posting targeted ads on Google, Facebook and Instagram.

“Then, depending on how that works, we will have to rope in more women to make the salt,” says Matiyali.

First Published:
Apr 13, 2019 17:32 IST

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