You probably haven’t run across Kala Namak in the United States, but in India you can find it at just about any street corner food vendor. In its coarser rock forms, Kala Namak (“black salt” in Hindi) is a deep purplish-black color. Once ground, it becomes more of a pinkish-brown, and on your food, it takes on a redder hue. This color-shifting salt, however, leaves a longer lasting impression on the palate than on the retina.
The aroma and taste of Indian black salt are those of sulfur mined from the belly of a slumbering volcano, which in fact is not all that far from the truth. The base of Kala Namak is the more familiar Himalayan Pink salt from Pakistan; this is then melted down with several India spices, in particular harad or haritaki, the seed of the Black Myrobalan tree. The sulfur compounds in the harad seeds are what impart the unique flavor to black salt, as well as its healing properties. The brine is allowed to cool, and then stored to let the flavors meld. This process brings added complexity to the already mineral-rich Himalayan Pink salt, which by itself contains over 84 trace minerals.
Kala Namak is deeply entrenched in South Asian cultures. It can be traced back to the time during with the Vedic scriptures were written and today is an important component of ayurvedic medicine, where it is believed to alleviate digestive ailments. The harad fruit is also used in Ayurveda as part of triphala, an herbal elixir that is used to treat intestinal disorders as well as eye disease and to promote immune system health. Whether it works or not is beyond my domain of expertise, but from the comfort of my kitchen I can tell you that Kala Namak brings something unequaled to both traditional Indian dishes and more familiar fare. It brings a certain fullness to chutneys, and sweeter ones especially take on a quality of roundedness when spiced with this salt. Chaat masala, a spice mix used to enhance fried street food (chaat) and fruit salad, also commonly contains this salt alongside ingredients such as coriander, ginger, chili powder, and cumin. Jal Jeera, a refreshing summertime drink and appetite opener, is a minty, spicy-sweet concoction that also calls for Kala Namak as well as cumin and cilantro.
Kala Namak can bring the unique flavors of the subcontinent to more typical American dishes as well. I especially like it on popcorn; a generous pinch or two of this salt on freshly popped kernels really amps up this savory snack, lending a warm richness and subtle, sulfuric hints of egg with each bite (in the best possible way). Once you’ve had popcorn popped in butter or olive oil and shaken with finely ground Kala Namak you’ll never go back to Pop Secret. You may even consider bringing a small rock of black salt and a salt shaver to the movie theater with you!
Popcorn with Kala Namak Salt
Serves 2 hungry people
2 tbsp canola or olive oil, for popping
1/3 cup popcorn kernels
2 tbsp olive oil or unsalted butter, for popcorn
3 two-finger pinches of fine Kala Namak
Put a large 3-quart pot on your stove top on medium-high heat. Place two tablespoons of oil in the pot, then arrange your kernels in an even layer at the bottom. Cover with a lid and shake gently back and forth, until all kernels are popped. Alternately, you can pop your kernels in any standard popcorn popper. If you’re using an air popper, omit the first two tablespoons of oil. Once the kernels are popped, drizzle the remaining two tablespoons of oil or melted butter on the popcorn, and sprinkle generously with Kala Namak.