During a recent Christmas, I was in my mother’s Palestinian hometown of Bethlehem in the West Bank, enjoying a breakfast of toast with zaaroor jam, the last fruit still growing in her family’s once-vast orchard. The house itself was long ago abandoned, and I was eating the toast in the lobby of a stylishly surreal hotel built by Banksy when, as I sprinkled some salt onto the sweet jam, a tourist from Ireland tapped me on my shoulder.
“Did you just put salt on jam?” he asked.
I smiled. A moment for evangelism. “Yes I did,” I said. “Have you tried it?”
Salting fruit, of course, is a practice that exists across cultures. A Dominican friend swears by sprinkling it on a bowl of mango slices, apple slices, and grapes. Two other friends, Filipino-raised and Indonesian-born, respectively, reach for salt on pineapple or strawberries, and say that it’s an Asian thing. Another close friend who was raised by an Indian father and Japanese-Canadian mother recalls eating Indian-spiced apples in his North Carolina youth; a Southern friend cited salted watermelon as distinctly Southern (though a Michigander friend’s grandfather had the same habit), and an Iowan friend claims his grandmother’s affection for salted cantaloupe is a particularly Midwestern peccadillo.
If you’re not doing it already, salt it all, I say. Roll it in salt. Or pepper. Or chile. Or garlic. Or everything spice. It’s a dark, delicious reminder that we have bred our fruit to be so sweet that some zoos had to stop feeding it to animals. Salted fruit is not a corruption — it’s a correction, a literal taste of pre-engineered fruit, fuller and sharper. We do the reverse with vegetables we caramelize or otherwise lift with sugar (the third and fourth ingredient in Heinz ketchup). Is the turnabout not fair play? Imagine history’s first bite of toast. Or pickles. Or the moment humanity understood that milk could become butter or yogurt or cheese. That’s the energy of salted or spiced fruit: It unlocks them.
Though I concede I have my limits. “Iranians like to put salt on their lemons,” an Iranian friend told me. “Just lick them with the salt. Kind of the margarita effect, I guess.” I guess, but no, too sour for me. And generally the juicier fruits work best. (Don’t say I didn’t warn you about salty bananas.) But soy sauce strawberries and salted grapefruit and chile watermelon transform ordinary farmers market finds into compact adventures — the food equivalent of finding your new personality at the other end of a dye job. This is what being excited by food is all about — what all our culinary travels and scavenger hunts are for. Not just to try something new, but to try something familiar, reimagined. Every so often, people rediscover “miracle fruit,” a berry that when eaten scrambles our taste buds to render sour tastes sweet and all sorts of other jumbles. It’s gimmicky and frankly unsatisfying — especially when there’s a much better miracle so readily at our fingertips, served in little shakers at almost every breakfast, lunch, and dinner table. A spoonful of sugar may help the medicine go down, but a sprinkle of salt lifts fruit to new heights.
At a backyard dinner party in Los Angeles this week, a tray of watermelon wedges was offered with an assortment of chile salt, Sichuan pepper salt, tandoori salt, and wasabi salt. If you’re ever lucky enough to find yourself in a similar situation, do what I did: Go all-in.