Excerpt from Salt by Mark Kurlansky, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Salt

A World History

by Mark Kurlansky

Salt
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2002, 352 pages
    Paperback:
    Feb 2003, 496 pages

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Fill the jar two-thirds with brine. Add whatever vegetables you like and whatever spice you like, cover, and the vegetables are ready in two days.

The spices added are usually hot red Sichuan peppers or ginger, a perennial herb of Indian origin, known to the Chinese since ancient times. The red pepper, today a central ingredient of Sichuan cooking, did not arrive until the sixteenth century, carried to Europe by Columbus, to India by the Portuguese, and to China by either the Indians, Portuguese, Andalusians, or Basques. Paocai that is eaten in two days is obviously more about flavor than preserving. After two days the vegetables are still very crisp, and the salt maintains, even brightens, the color. Zhacai is made with salt instead of brine, alternating layers of vegetables with layers of salt crystals. In time a brine is formed from the juices the salt pulls out of the vegetables. When a peasant has a baby girl, the family puts up a vegetable every year and gives the jars to her when she’s married. This shows how long zhacai is kept before eating. The original medieval idea was to marry her after twelve or fifteen jars. Today it usually takes a few more vegetables. The Chinese also solved the delicate problem of transporting eggs by preserving them in salt. They soaked the eggs, and still do, in brine for more than a month, or they soak them for a shorter time and encase them in salted mud and straw. The resulting egg, of a hard-boiled consistency with a bright orange yolk, will neither break nor spoil if properly handled. A more complicated technique, involving salt, ash, lye, and tea, produces the "1,000-year-old egg." Typical of the Chinese love of poetic hyperbole, 1,000-year-old eggs take about 100 days to make, and will keep for another 100 days, though the yolk is then a bit green and the smell is strong.

In 250 b.c., the time of the Punic Wars in the Mediterranean, the governor of Shu, today the province of Sichuan, was a man named Li Bing. The governor was one of the greatest hydraulic engineering geniuses of all time.

The coincidence of hydraulic engineering skills and political leadership does not seem strange when it is remembered that water management was one of the critical issues in developing China, a land of droughts and floods.

The Yellow River, named for the yellowish silt it rushes through northern China, was known as "the father of floods." It and the Yangtze are the two great rivers of Chinese history, both originating in the Tibetan plateau and winding toward the sea on the east coast of China. The Yellow runs through arid northern regions and tends to silt up, raising the riverbed, which causes flooding unless dikes are built up around its banks. The Yangtze is a wider river with many navigable tributaries. It flows through the green and rainy center of China, bisecting the world’s third largest country, from the Tibetan mountains to Shanghai on the East China Sea. The rule of the wise Emperor Yao is said to have been a golden age of ancient China, and one reason for this was that Emperor Yao had tamed nature by introducing the concept of flood control.

Li Bing has taken on some of the mythic dimensions of Yao, a god who conquered floods and tamed nature. But unlike the mythical Emperor Yao, Li Bing’s existence is well documented. His most extraordinary accomplishment was the building of the first dam, which still functions in modernized form. At a place called Dujiangyan, he divided the Minjiang River, a tributary of the Yangtze. The diverted water goes into a series of spillways and channels that can be opened to irrigate in times of droughts and closed in times of flooding. He had three stone figures of men placed in the water as gauges. If their feet were visible, this signaled drought conditions and the dam’s gates were opened to let in water. If their shoulders were submerged, floodwaters had risen too high and the dam’s gates were closed.

Salt by Mark Kurlansky. Copyright Mark Kurlansky 2001. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Walker Books. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher.

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