I usually keep uniodized table salt, kosher salt, and sea salt in my kitchen but lately I've been getting a bit saltier than usual, thanks to a number of friends. Food stylist Karen Shinto, for example, is crazy for French Carmague fleur de sel and British Maldon. She buys them wholesale and gave me several packages. When I went on a Korean market tour with Hyunjoo Albrecht earlier this year, she told me to buy Korean salt that had been processed in bamboo; it was a fine as sand and intensely salty. Heidi Swanson recently gifted me a bag of specialty salt acquired during her trip to Japan. I've been buying various salts at Whole Foods and checking the bulk bins at health food stores too.
Playing around with all the salts has been fun — there are varying flavors, textures, and colors — but the one pictured above has thrown me for a loop. I just got it in the mail from salt expert Mark Bitterman, co-owner of The Meadow in Portland, Oregon. A self-described 'selmelier,' Mark is one of the country's leading salt sellers. He loves to delve into the chemistry, history, and culinary functions of salt. One of the salts that he's investigating is called Vietnamese Pearl. It’s a super white salt from the motherland that’s an artisanal product. Mark acquired it from a stateside distributor but doesn’t have any information on it. He says that old Vietnamese women come into The Meadow — a retail store specializing in salt, chocolate, wine, and flowers — and go ga-ga over the salt. His Vietnamese is bit rusty (okay, nonexistent) so he hasn’t been able to chat with them to obtain background information on the salt. Mark asked for my assistance so I’m checking all my resources – including you!
Here’s a close-up of one of the larger chunks of the Vietnamese Pearl salt. It’s big for salt, about 1/3 of an inch in diameter.
It has a lovely, crystalline structure that’s rectangular in shape. The white sheen – like that of perfect teeth — gives off a pearly quality. Texturally, the salt feels like large pieces of chipped porcelain, though you can bite down and chomp on it. The flavor is clean and light with bright levels of saltiness. I ate a chunk and it didn’t make me wince.
At first, I thought Mark had been duped by some wily Vietnamese person who'd sold him the stuff from the giant plastic tubs of sea salt sold at Vietnamese markets. I happened to have a tub of that Vietnamese sea salt and did a side-by-side tasting. The one from the Vietnamese markets is super duper salty and when you suck on it, it becomes clear. Mark's Vietnamese Pearl is more delicate in flavor and retains its opaque quality after I wet it. Both have similar Kryptonite-like structures. So they are perhaps related but definitely processed differently.
Do you know what Vietnamese Pearl salt is? If you do, where is it made? How is it made? What gives it the special structure and shape? What do people do with it? What is its name in Vietnamese?
Salt is a precious commodity, and in fact, it once was used as currency. Roman soldiers were paid in salt and when slaves were sold, salt was used as payment. Maybe we can prove that Vietnam is worth its weight in salt!