In Salmiak Territory

BERLIN—A taste for salmiak is determined primarily by geography and age. If you are not from northern Germany, the Netherlands, the Nordic countries, or the Baltic states, you probably will not like the taste of the salty licorice candy. Its deceptive initial sweetness explodes into the very salty, smoky, inky, almost-stinging flavor of the sal ammoniac or ammonium chloride that gives salmiak both its name and palpable chemical bouquet.

Most kids don’t like the taste, but many grow up to be self-proclaimed addicts or casual consumers of salmiak. “It’s something you either love or hate,” the Finnish students I met at a hostel in Frankfurt told me, “You really have to try it if you are ever in Finland.”

Salmiak is available in many shapes: soft-chew, gummy, hard candy, pastille, ensconced in a cloak of sugar, liquefied as chocolate bar filling or as alcoholic drink. Salmiak was also available in vending machines at the train station I stopped at in Holland.

When I bit into my first marble of salmiak, my tongue burned from the sharp saltiness and the back of my nose felt as if it had been struck by a mixture of fermented stingray meat and Windex. Did I like it? Did I not like it? My palate was so flabbergasted that I couldn’t tell. So I had another one, and then another until I could imagine how, exactly, salmiak could be branded “delicious.”

Acquiring a taste for a regional culinary specialty can be like acclimating to a new culture—it’s not easy, and it happens over the course of lifetimes, if not generations. To the uninitiated, a new taste, like the sal ammoniac in salmiak, is so strong as to be physically overwhelming and unlikeable due to its very foreignness. Often people, after trying salmiak for the first time, will spit it back out onto their palms or briskly destroy it in their jaws with a polite grimace.

And it shouldn’t be taken for granted that everyone in salmiak-territory likes or eats salmiak. Some people, like the Swedish and Dutch students I met in Berlin, eat salmiak occasionally but do not care much for it.

Similar to many beloved confections, the pleasures of salmiak can be treacherous. It is recommended that people with high blood pressure refrain from consuming large qualities of this treat which, for the adventurous and appropriately healthy, is available in the United States under the alias “Dutch double salt licorice.”

Christine S. An ’12, an arts writer, is a Literature concentrator in Cabot House.

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