By Priya Krishna | Image Lucky_Guy via iStock, Collage CF

 

To most people, salt is just salt — flaky stuff we put atop our food to make it taste a bit more like what we want it to.  


But in a country like the Philippines, which has been colonized so many times that any sense of “local” culture has become diluted and muddled, salt is one of the few remaining indigenous traditions of Filipino cuisine.  

The Philippines are comprised of 7,107 islands, all surrounded by seawater. As a result, salt is a cultural force unto itself, and a form of livelihood for many of the islands’ inhabitants. For them, salt has both unique flavor and terroir, and salt-making methods are passed down through family generations.  

Nowhere is this more pronounced than Bohol, a city that dates back to pre-colonial times, where one family has produced one of the rarest, most precious salts in the world for over a thousand years: Asin Tibuok.  

For those familiar with the artisanal salts harvested off the Pacific Northwest and coast of France, Asin Tibuok is something new. Gorgeous square gems of it land on your tongue like a ton of bricks, spreading a rusty minerality, earthiness, and a mild, chocolatey sweetness across your taste buds. Its effects are fleeting. It’s there, in the most pronounced, intense way; then it’s not.  

Most of the salt produced in the world is harvested through underground mining or pumping and filtering ocean water, but making Asin Tibuok (which translates to “unbroken” in Bisaya, a regional Filipino dialect) is more complicated and time-consuming. Its practice is a relic of a pre-colonial method once used during trade to preserve salt for long periods of time, and few have the time or knowledge to invest in it.    

It starts with flooding the surrounding bays with coconuts, allowing the fruits to soak up the salty seawater for at least three months. The coconuts are then dried out in the sun, and burnt with local hardwoods like mango and mahogany. The resulting charcoal and salt mixture is filtered so that only the charcoal-stained salt remains. The salt is then slowly roasted in clay pots for one to two days until the salt becomes a solid dome commonly said to resemble a dinosaur egg. And here’s where its name comes in: Instead of being broken apart, the salt is then shaved onto food to lend flavor.  

Every step is crucial to the character of the salt — the smokiness from the charcoal, the slight sweetness from the coconuts, the floral notes from the hardwood, the utter brininess of the sea. All in all, the process can take up to four months.  

While the salt is consumed locally in Bohol, it is not currently distributed anywhere else in the Philippines, as the country passed the ASIN Law in 1995, which required the addition of iodine to all salt in order to combat the prevalence of goiter, or iodine deficiency. The law’s impact has led many indigenous communities to give up the salt-making process altogether, with all their unique varieties slowly going extinct. Even Asin Tibuok has become increasingly rare, as future generations of the notoriously mysterious family who makes the salt have become reticent to continue the tradition. In the meantime, Asin Tibuok can be found through international distributors who sell the product abroad.  

But in the U.S., as Filipino food increases in popularity and Filipino chefs establish a more dominant presence in the culinary scene, imported Asin Tibuok has started to gain some recognition among the restaurant community. Francis Ang, the chef who heads up the Filipino food project, Pinoy Heritage, grew up in the Philippines, but only discovered the salt when he met one of its international distributors. “It’s not just salty,” he recalls of his first experience tasting the product. “I was getting all these different notes, different minerals, a little sweetness. It was like a natural MSG.”  

Now, Ang uses Asin Tibuok as a finishing salt for a carpaccio, a grilled steak, or a simple dessert. “It’s this flavor that intrigues the palate, then disappears right away,” he says. “You’re not getting a punch of salt. It’s an even flavor.” He recently made a smoked coconut ice cream, which he topped with passionfruit curd and a little sprinkle of Asin Tibuok. “You immediately get those floral notes. It just added a bit of playfulness to every flavor. It enhanced everything really nicely.” 

He’s hopeful that other, non-Filipino chefs will give the salt a try — that it becomes as widely known as Maldon, based outside of London, or Jacobsen’s from Portland. Asin Tibuok currently retails online for a hefty $149.99 for a two-pound “egg” of salt, but Ang is convinced the quality of the salt is well worth the price of admission. “You aren’t just getting straight-up salt. You’re getting umami, [and] you’re getting a tradition.”  

And if the salt is just one food being produced on one of the country’s 7,107 islands, “there’s bound to be tons of unique artisan ingredients that we just don’t know about,” he reasons. Perhaps we’ve only just scratched the surface of the culinary treasures the islands have to offer.  

“This is what true Filipino food culture is," he says. "We just can’t understand until someone brings it out.”      



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