Djibouti’s Mystery – Salt from Lake Assal

It is impossible to transform a cube into a sphere by cutting off corners.  Every time you cut a corner off, you reduce the degrees of the angles, but no matter how many times you do this, you will still have sides.   A perfect sphere has no sides.  This is the classical version of the problem.  The same impossibility holds true going in the opposite direction.  You can start with one cube, and then attach six cubes to it, one for each side.  Then add more cubes to those sides, and more cubes to those, etc. etc., until you form something that approaches the shape of a sphere–but again there will always be sides. Math has its limitations.  Happily, salt does not.

The viscous waters of Lake Assal in Djibouti (a small-ish country on the horn of Africa nestled between Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia) are the second most saline in the world, and it’s shores have long been the shimmering destination of the salt trade.  Most Assal salt is scraped or dug from the shore, loaded on camels, and transported inland. But virtually unknown to the outside world, a very different, very rare salt can be found.  Wade into the waters, bend over, scoop the salt that has accumulated there, and behold.  Spheres.

Salt crystals, in strict and inevitable accordance with the fundamentals of chemistry, form with “face-centered cubic symmetry” as sodium ions and chloride ions bond.  This results in a perfect cube.  But combine the continuous action of wind-blown waves, currents, heat, and perhaps a touch of pressure in through a super saturated brine that contains ample amounts of magnesium chloride and other minerals, and something altogether different happens.  Crystals form, clump on to other crystals, get glued together with magnesium and other salts, roll around, and slowly snowball and whittle and polish themselves into spheres. Nature does this all by itself, with no consultation or assistance from humans.

Crystals range in size from the finest caviar to the most daunting softball.   Locals then harvest the salt crystals in the traditional manner.  Families work together, with the men wading deep into the lake to collect the pearls in baskets. The women then hand sort the salt spheres by size, with the largest crystals comprising rarest finds.  After drying, the salt is bagged and delivered to the port.

We’ve sorted our Djibouti salts into four different sizes: the ridiculously large Djibouti Boule, the amusing marble-sized  Djibouti Cutie, the aptly named and inviting Djibouti Pearl, and the fine and practical Djibouti Dew.  What to do with this strange, physics-defying salt?  It’s sort of like the problem of rounding the cube.  Whittle down your ideas until you get close to the perfect recipe—but recognize that you are really just tinkering with the unsolvable.

Serve Djibouti Boule in a gimlet, using gin from the freezer and adding the salt ball at the last minute.  You then drink in a race against the dissolving salt.  Or wrap a Djibouti Boule with ground lamb, egg, breadcrumbs, and herbs and do meat-encrusted salt balls, meating your salt instead of salting your meat is not just witty, it’s delicious, and plays with the cooking time and texture of the food in interesting ways.  Or just enjoy the tactile pleasure they offer.  I keep a bowl of the on desk and roll them around between my fingers when I’m trying to figure something resistant to figuring, like what to do with Djibouti Boule.

Roll some Djibouti Cutie around a plate with more angular geometries of sashimi, or melon, or what have you.  Perch some atop a beet and goat cheese salad for visual drama and textural intimidation (the crystals are actually somewhat soft, but seem hard as marbles).

Scatter grilled or broiled seafood with Djibouti Pearl. Let some intermingle with the juices of a steak, a lobster salad, or what the heck, an oyster.

Djibouti Dew is effectively a sprinkling salt.  It has an elusive, but ultimately hard and in your face intensity that makes it suitable for spicy foods found anywhere from Thailand to Madagascar to Peru to Mexico.
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7 Responses to “Djibouti’s Mystery – Salt from Lake Assal”

  1. on 14 Oct 2010 at 12:40 pmlynn

    WOW! amazing!!!

  2. on 15 Feb 2011 at 1:04 pmLila Kulart

    That is awesome! I didn’t know salt could be so intereting! Never knew they could be spherical! So Cool!

  3. on 08 Oct 2012 at 5:56 pmRobert J Johnson

    If Lake Assal (25% salt) is second, who is first as the saltiest?

    Really enjoy your web page on salt.

    Robert J Johnson

  4. on 16 Oct 2012 at 4:08 pmMark Bitterman

    @Robert – The Dead Sea is generally considered the saltiest body of water in the world. The salinity of the Dead Sea, Lake Assal, and other seas are always changing based on weather patterns and human intervention, so the rankings shift overtime. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed the website!

  5. on 29 Oct 2012 at 8:02 pmTammie

    Can you tell me how I can get this salt, even if I have to import it?

  6. on 27 Nov 2013 at 11:03 pmVinay

    I was in Djibouti last week and really enjoyed your article on Lake Assal. I would call Assal a place of – Beauty in Dread.

    With regards

  7. on 09 Jan 2014 at 4:14 ammurdoc

    mmm no, the saltiest is don juan pond, lake assal then dead sea is the third. very great article though!

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