Detour: Salting the Lily

To personify a nation’s cuisine, Danish food is incredibly humble. Criticized as the leftover scraps of a nation’s exports manufactured for the palette of a baby, the foundation of Danish cuisine rests on secondary meat products and pre-refrigeration preservation techniques, and has an extremely brief spice spectrum. The major flavors tend towards the fatty and the sweet, with dairy playing a dominant role. A stereotyped emblem of Danish cuisine would be pickled herring served on buttered rye bread, served swimming with boiled potatoes in a bowl of heavy cream, with a sprig of parsley placed delicately on top.

This “milk diet” suckles on the national teat of dairy production, and will not be easily weaned off of the everyday cuisine. Baby-boomer era cookbooks make butter and cream as prevalent as hand-washing in the kitchen, and the next generations inherit a Paula Dean-esque approach to cooking with dairy. Danish schoolchildren learn to churn butter in “home knowledge” class, the gears of the social welfare state greased by cow fat.

But where this predominance of dairy doesn’t appear is outside of the kitchen, in the industrially produced and brightly wrapped candy world. A focus on sweetness is hardly something you can fault candy for, but alongside an Amazonian diversity of chocolates and pastries, there is a popular savory outlier: salmiak. Salmiak is a salty liquorice that gets its bite from ammonium chloride, in addition to the normal flavoring of liquorice extract. But the saltiness is more of a burn than anything that table salt could provide – when you cook with ammonia salt, you’re likely to get singed.

My first taste of salmiak came in the form of Super Piratos, a doubloon-sized tough liquorice disc, produced by the popular German candy brand, Haribo. I could not eat the whole piece, my tongue felt dented by the burning spiciness and the flavor circulated through my respiratory system long after I swallowed, so that every time I inhaled it smelled like harsh laundry detergent. Haribo’s English slogan is “Kids and grown-ups love it so – the happy world of Haribo,” but this strength of flavor would have stunted my development as a child.

Far removed from the “extreme” candies of my youth, which appeared in the pucker-happy sourness of Warheads and Sour Patch Kids, this salmiak business amazed me. Liquorice has well-established medicinal properties, assisting with loosening mucus and, ahem, stools. Liquorice candies are still commonly available in pharmacies in northern Europe, perhaps as a comforting homage to the herbal roots of modern pharmaceuticals. But the affinity for the ammonium salt of Salmiak candies seems to have arrived separately, and been adopted as an acquired taste.

If candy is supposed to be a treat, a special indulgence that appeals to that insistent “sweet tooth,” then what role does ammonium chloride play? The human preference for sweets over bitters has clear evolutionary benefits: generally, eating bitter things can poison you, while sweet things give you energy. Candy serves a special role in a nation’s food culture as separate from high cuisine, home cooking or agriculture: it is a highly processed (or can be) and industrially produced commodity, marketed as a treat with no necessary nutritional value. It is wholly separate from the baby-food preferences of the sweet and milky and occupies its own space in food culture. Perhaps candy is a better cultural indicator than other foodstuffs, marked by preference and indulgence rather than necessity and nutrition.

My hypothesis for this relationship is pretty underdeveloped, as is my taste for salmiak. I suppose I still find the candies’ taste as medicinal more than anything else, but maybe that’s an association I just need to switch; to instead see the medicine as candy. Hopefully I can get to combine the doctor’s visit and the lollipop into one.