The making of salt-crusted baked sea bass can often leave one befuddled, but it is the finest way to cook a lush, velvety fish, says Chef Vikas Seth as he revives a delicacy from 300 BC using a once globally popular baking technique
Think salt. Now think about six kilos of it wrapping a fully grown sea bass brought fresh from the coast of Kerala; and yet when the baked crust is broken, and a slice is served of this delicious piece of fish, almost luxuriant in its taste, there is no hint of any saltiness over what is required.
It will be, especially for someone who is witnessing the making of a Salt-Crusted Baked Sea Bass (or salmon or rainbow trout for the first time, including a seasoned chef like Vikas Seth, Culinary Director, Embassy Leisure, whose first introduction to the dish during his travels abroad left him both excited and puzzled. Impressively rustic and simple, the brilliance of the dish, recalls Chef Seth, “is its often logic defying outcome. Unless tried, it is hard to fathom how a fish that is literally buried in salt has no traces whatsoever of it once the crust is broken, skin removed, and the glistening meat served. Even without its traditional accompaniment of potatoes or root vegetables and a butter-based sauce, the fish is an absolute treat complete with its natural flavour and fresh sweetness.”
That curiosity set Chef Seth on a journey to find this old technique that once ruled portal stationand royal tables alike and according to Sicilian Epicurean Poet Archestratus’ Life of Luxury was considered to be “the only way to cook fish.” Such was the popularity of this ancient culinary technique, recalls Chef Sabyasachi Gorai, Culinary Director, Recca, “that back in the time it was the preferred way to present the fresh catch of the day, not just by fishmongers or salt merchants but at homes where the baked delicacy was often the pièce de résistance.”
A reason for its immense popularity was that the recipe only called for three ingredients: pepper/lemon or any one herb, bags of unrefined salt and a good catch (which was often the fish grown to its full potential). Fascinatingly, continues Chef Seth, “it was the simplicity of the recipe that made the technique and the dish travel across continents, in most cases as part of the immigrant cuisine, and was tweaked and adapted to the places’ palate. The result is the many formats of the salt-crusted delicacies one finds across the world, including the Catalonia version introduced possibly by the ancient Phoenicians, French Daurade au gros Sel (sea bream baked in salt) and the immensely popular branzino al sale (sea bass baked in salt).” And it isn’t just fish that was crusted and baked, the technique launched a thousand versions where everything from meat to pork to vegetables were cooked, with varying results.
But where did this master technique develop? While coastal areas would be a good assumption—after all, as Chef Gorai points out, “it is where you would find sea salt and seafood in abundance”—there are many schools of thought behind the origin of the technique and its global popularity. According to Salt: A World History author Mark Kurlansky, the trend began with the Chinese who cooked with salt crust over 1,000 years ago, a fact that is corroborated by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo, author of The Chinese Kitchen, who attributes the discovery to the nomadic Hakka people in Canton, where they would make these make-shift ‘ovens’ in the ground by digging shallow holes in the earth, filling them with stones that were heated, and then adding whole chickens in sea salt. Legend, of course, gives the credit to the Mongols who would use the salt crust to cook a variety of meat including chicken, root vegetables and even wild boar, and given the nomadic nature and supremacy over the Silk Route Asia corridor were best suited to popularise this format of cooking.
The legend holds water if you take into consideration the extraction of Himalayan salt. However, a few culinary anthropologists also credit the fishermen as creators of salt-crust cooking. Resource-wise, after all, they had the access to salt and fresh fish—essential ingredients of the dish—and one more factor: the wide use of salt as a preservative. Dried fish or sukhua is the perfect example.
What gives both theories credence is two mentions of the salt-crust recipe in history. While in China, the earliest mention is that of Dong Jing (a chicken dish) popular in Guandong, during the Qing dynasty around the 15th century, Archestratus gives the recipe and the technique an ancestry of 330 BC. Archestratus, who was a gourmand and known to celebrate his love for a good dish, makes a note of the popular salt-crust recipe of that time in his poem ‘Hyppathia’. His recipe calls for gutting the fish, filling the belly with a few sprigs of thyme, and then coating it with thick salt mixed with a little water and egg white.
Interestingly, it is a recipe that most chefs across the world still follow with tweaks to suit their palate and of their diners. For instance, while Chef Gorai’s version is made with salmon with peppercorn as one of the dominant flavourings along with Gondhoraj lemon leaves and wedges, Chef Seth’s rendition is his take on Archestratus’ recipe albeit with a few changes.
To begin with, says the tavern cuisine specialist, “we skipped using the egg white as the unrefined salt mixed with water yields a better result. The choice of sea bass instead of any other variety was based on two factors: freshness as we get our stock from Kerala and two, the fact that sea bass allows for interesting subtle flavour foreplays.”
In keeping with the fish, Chef Seth went for the citrus flavouring with lemon and thyme—a theme that was repeated with the butter sauce the fish was served with. The idea, says Chef Seth, “is to infuse the fresh sea bass with subtle flavourings and aromas that would elevate its natural taste.”
But reviving a recipe that old came with its own set of challenges. The first was getting the ratio of salt and fish right. While most recipe call for nearly two to three kilos of salt, Chef Seth discovered that often the salt crust mix quantity depends on the size of the fish and can differ from a kilo above the weight of the fish to double that quantity. The other takeaway from the R&D was the flavouring.
The thing, says Chef Seth, “about salt-crust baking is that once the salt is made into a crust, it stops being a flavourant and takes on a dual role. On the one hand, it acts like any other crust which gets baked first before transporting the heat to the fish and moisture out of the skin; and on the other the salt in the crust favours the growth of these more salt-tolerant, beneficial organisms while inhibiting the growth of undesirable spoilage bacteria and fungi naturally present in these foods. This process when supported by the flavourant that is stuffed inside the gutted fish builds not just that amazing taste but also that luxuriant, moist meat appearance.”
This explains why, despite the quantity of salt used, the fish needs to be seasoned well, and this, says the culinary revivalist, “isn’t only about the herbs and spices but the salt as well.”
Is the simplicity coupled with the novelty of the dish the reason that salt-crusted baked fish is seeing a kind of second debut in experiential tables these days? While both chefs credit the ‘absurdity’ of the dish for the renewed interest among diners, nutritional therapist Sveta Bhassin points to another plausible reason: wellness. Fish is low calorie and hence is the meat of choice for many people looking for a healthier lifestyle. But what crust baking does, says Bhassin, “is that while it is slow baking the fish, it rearranges the nutritional matrix to enable better absorption of nutrients like potassium, magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin B-12. In fact, slow heat rearranges the nutrients’ matrix in a way that it is easily absorbed into the body. Thus, making it one of those low-calorie indulgences that is good for the palate, gut and skin—and this includes the butter-based sauce too.”
Known for her columns on food anthropology, Chefs’ Retreat and wellness-based experiential tables, Madhulika Dash has also been on the food panel of Masterchef India Season 4, a guest lecturer at IHM, and is currently part of the Odisha government’s culinary council.