Sean tomatoes
Mahala Le May’s tasting session, part of the SALT project, held on the site of the old Joppa Saltpans. Photo: Ellie J McMaster.

What is salt? Primarily salt consists mostly of the chemical compound sodium chloride. In its natural crystalline form it’s known as rock salt or halite. Most commonly it can be found in seawater. In general the ocean has around 35g of salt-solids per litre, which is often expressed as a salinity of 3.5%. In a more general sense salt can then also be defined as one of the basic salt human tastes, also known as ‘saltiness’. Throughout human history there is evidence of salt-use, not only in terms of seasoning but also as a method of food preservation.

Dear Sean, I hope you’re well. My name’s Tom, I’m a writer and editor based in Edinburgh. I wanted to get in touch about a possible writing commission. I’m working with Art Walk Projects in Portobello on SALT, a new one-year programme that includes four process-led artist residencies and outdoor public art commissions connecting Edinburgh’s coastal ecologies with the global climate crisis. We’re working on an editorial partnership with MAP which will involve commissioning four writers to respond to each of the four artists in a slow and sustained way over the coming months.

These texts will be published online at and will also form the basis of a printed SALT publication to be completed in March 2023. I wanted to ask if you would be interested in one of these writing commissions? I loved your Home Cooking piece on MAP last year and we were thinking you might be interested in writing in response to the work of Mahala Le May. Mahala will be tracing the importance of salt as an ingredient for cooking and preserving food, engaging with different methods of salt production across Scotland. Responding to Portobello’s own saltpans, she is working towards a series of food events, talks and workshops that look at how we perceive and communicate taste. The exact nature of the text and the writing process is very open. We’re interested in exploring slow, responsive ways of working, emphasising the durational aspect of the residencies.

‘tomatoes at lunch time with a line of salt on top’ ‘try it and see’ ‘the texture’ ‘ancient sea beds become part of the earths crust’ ‘how do you get it out then’ ‘salt mines in cheshire’ ‘salt museum’ ‘combination’ ‘msg is salt’ ‘tofu salt’ ‘dead sea’ ‘pressurised process to concentrate brine’ ‘radiation tower’ ‘nuances in flavour’ ‘polytunnels solar evaporation’ ‘differences to do with location and process’ ‘drip sea water through blackthorn branches’ ‘eastern european air purification methods’ ‘salt rooms’ ‘sit in a room and feel better’ ‘walking by the sea is a seen as healthy traditionally’ ‘after an hour with the raging sea’ ‘wind evaporation’ ‘see try feel’ ‘the purest form of sodium chloride’ ‘it’s too salty’ ‘250g of salt in the body’ ‘the difference between aroma and scent’ ‘aftertaste’ ‘so often we eat just to sustain ourselves’ ‘flavours from one single ingredient’ ‘you need that crunch’ ‘interesting history’ ‘everything tastes like salt’ ‘what would seaweed be good for” “super-processed’ ‘if your body is functional it should already be removing salt’ “genetic salt processing’ ‘salt tolerance ‘addiction’ ‘salt has the ability the raise the bar’ “salt before refrigeration’ ‘we didn’t get salt trucks in my area’ ‘control during the american civil war’ ‘preservation’ ‘osmosis’ ‘brine stops aging’ ‘slow it down’ ‘convenience’ ‘more bland’ ‘heritage varieties’ ‘sometimes it feels overwhelming’ ‘what we might be losing’ ‘fermentation’ ‘eggy smell’ ‘I can’t tell the difference’ ‘privilege’ ‘pumped into crystallisation ponds’.

One of my first memorable interactions with salt came when I was eight. Being a huge fan of soy sauce, be it dark or light, Chinese, Japanese or even those weird fish-shaped sachets you often get in takeaway meal-deal packs of so-called ‘sushi’ in British supermarkets, at that age it felt unimaginable to me that there could be any food at all that wouldn’t be improved by a dash of the black stuff. As such, one day I was helping to clear the table away after a family meal and there was a bottle of dark soy sauce just sitting there on the table tempting me. I picked it up, popped open the lid and raised the whole thing to my nose, inhaling deeply the salty fermented concoction within. Then I looked around myself, checking that nobody else was looking. I moved the bottle down to my lips and lifted the bottle upwards. One big swig of soy sauce. What harm could it do? Almost immediately I realised my mistake as my face contorted into positions and expressions I hadn’t thought possible. My entire body shuddered. I ran to the bathroom and attempted to wash my mouth out with water from the tap. I couldn’t stop shaking. Eventually I managed to cleanse my taste buds from the stinging sensation of that salt. I went downstairs again and was told off by my family for deserting my cleaning-up post. But the scolding was worth it to keep my stupidity a secret. I apologised and got on with my job, making sure that the lid on the soy sauce bottle was firmly sealed tight. To this day I’ve tried to be as careful as possible when it comes to table soy sauce, treating the saltiness it adds as a precious gift rather than something to just be drank willy-nilly. And despite this experience I still love all the flavours that come with soy sauce. One day I’d still love to ferment and make my own. And occasionally, after a big family meal when I’m cleaning up, there will still be a moment when my eyes are drawn to the bottle of shadow black liquid, and the compulsion momentarily takes my mind. But I won’t let it win.

I ♥ SALT on sweet stuff ‘Salt Seasons’ Salt of the Earth. Enriches foods & faith—Seasoned Christians we enrich each other. Some salt tastes Artificial. Sorely missed a pinch of salt on my soft-boiled egg at lunchtime. There is a salt mine in Poland that extracts Himalayan salt → Wieliczka Salt Mine Agree on chips + Baked potatoes. Over shoulder Ritual. I like SALT TOO MUCH RITUAL: IF YOU ARE USING SALT AND YOU HAVE SOME LEFT, DON’T WASH IT AWAY FROM YOUR FINGERS BUT THROW IT OVER YOUR SHOULDER I ♥ chips & salt Thank you for doing this, I felt like the only person who is obssessed with SALT! I ♥ SALT! Today I wondered… is salt a finite resource? Is it produced sustainably? Will we one day run out of our beloved salt?? My Granny loves salt + is very paranoid that someone will tell her off and take it away from her. Whenever there is not salt on the table she is very suspicious. She is also Gluten free. I think she is marvelous and I love her dearly LOVE SALT OVER FRIES ♥ PURE & SIMPLE :) Swishing my mouth out with (sea) salt water to manage tongue & gum ulcers. Magic potions!

I love salt on poached eggs, on focaccia, on new potatoes, on ripe yellow tomatoes. I like how it brings out the best flavours of foods. How I crave it when I’m hungry. How you can taste the difference in good salt :) Rastafarians in the Caribbean don’t eat salt on food if they are strict and levels of an Ital diet SALT, I ♥ SALT! ON FISH + CHIPS! I like salt on eggs + potatoes. S. A. L. T. is an acronym. For Speech and Language Therapist. I love the feeling of salt in my hair after swimming in the sea—it makes it feel different and a special kind of curly and I hate washing it out! My skin stings when I swim in the sea My boyfriend introduced me to Maldon Salt. He’s a chef and gave me ice cream, olive oil + Maldon Salt. I always think my grandmother uses too much salt on her food but she’s 99 so what do I know!? I love hula hoops – nice and salty! SALT—THE BIGGER, THE BETTER! (ALSO—YAY FOR PEPPER) chips are good with salt! SALT! Salt is a-okay SALT (ah ah) SAVIOUR OF THE UNIVERSE! Mahala’s salted ice cream was amazing ♥

At times of difficulty in my personal life I always find myself turning to research. This project happened to coincide with a difficult time in my life, mainly connected to grief. As such, the opportunity to research salt for this project felt like a real lifeline. I began by looking up Prestonpans, a village originally built from fishing. I learned that all this changed when monks from the Abbey of Newbattle arrived in the area in 1198. Noticing the abundance of local coal as well as the availability of timber, peat and, of course, the sea, the monks petitioned the crown for rights to dig coals to use for salt-panning. They were granted this in 1209 and this shifted the area away from fishing and instead towards the manufacturing of salt. This whole history was fascinating to me, and yet it also somehow wasn’t enough. A friend I talked to informed me about the story of Lot’s wife in the Bible, who was turned into a pillar of salt in retaliation for disobeying an order from God to not ‘look back’ towards the destruction of the city of Sodom. I was immediately drawn in by the themes of punishment and guilt, as well as the question of how salt fitted in with any and all of it. One website hypothesised that the use of salt was related to the Dead Sea, a body of water eight times more salty than the average ocean. The Dead Sea, the website claimed, would’ve been located close to Sodom and therefore salt would’ve been a mineral with a lot of particular local history and culture. However, the site also went on to link the story of Lot’s wife with an older story, that of Orpheus and Eurydice in Greek mythology. During that story Orpheus was punished for looking back towards the recently deceased Eurydice during an attempt to revive her from the dead. Around this time I learned that my grandfather’s tombstone had fallen in the cemetery during a storm. So I pressed on with my research, this time focussing on other uses of salt in language. I searched for proverbs from around the world which used salt as a way to teach, advise or soothe, and I found myself particularly enamoured with ‘Eternity makes room for a salty cucumber’ (supposedly of Russian origin) as well as ‘Don’t slaughter more pigs than you can salt’ (from French). However the most surprising phrase I discovered was 我吃盐多过你吃米, literally ‘I have eaten more salt than you have eaten rice’ in Chinese. It made me think of my grandfather, who ate rice almost every night of his close-to-a-hundred years of life. I imagined how many grains might have been in each bowl he ate, as well as how many bowls he might have eaten each night. During his youth it would’ve been very little I’m sure, but once he arrived in the UK would he have made up for that childhood of hunger by eating more here? In any case, trying to imagine a person and/or being who had eaten more salt than he had rice felt impossible. But then, what about me? How many grains of rice had I consumed during my life? And how many thousands of people out there had eaten more salt than I had rice. 我吃盐多过你吃米 became a phrase I would repeat in my head as I…

Over the course of working with Mahala on this project I have definitely found my own relationship to salt changing. I’m more aware of the history and importance of salt in a traditional sense, as well as in a more symbolic sense. Some years ago my Mum started to experience dizzy spells, which eventually got diagnosed as an incurable syndrome affecting the salt crystals in her ears. She joined a national network for other people who suffered from similar issues and some of them suggested that she cut salt out of her diet as completely and totally as possible. They agreed that there was little to no scientific basis to back up that this actually helped but some of them had still somehow found that it had. My Mum tried it and almost straight away her symptoms lifted, her dizzy spells became less frequent and she decided to make the dietary change permanent. To try to help her I sent her salt free crisps and/or recipes I could find. I cooked for her without any soy sauce. I checked any and all packages for salt content. This also changed my own relationship with salt, albeit in a very different way. I began to see salt as a monolithic ‘thing’ that I should monitor at times. Then, last year to celebrate my 30th birthday I spent a week in Malta. During that time I visited the great salt pans to the south-east of the island, and spent some time just sitting by the shore, watching as the waves crashed against the man-made ridges. The process was so simple, when the tide went out some sea water remained in each pan and then the hot Maltese sun would evaporate the water from the salt. It had never occurred to me that something similar to this could naturally happen in a place like Scotland. Of course, now I know better thanks to this project and now it all feels like it makes more sense. Scotland has such abundant access to the sea, and also has a long tradition of enjoying salty food. Fish and chips without salt is not normal here. Salt companies like Blackthorn are based here, even though their salt processing technique is very different from the panning method. Just before I started to work with Mahala a friend of mine sent me a gift of sel gris, a coarse salt from France famous for how well it pairs with both game meats and root vegetables. The actual science behind this claim I have no idea. It’s probably a marketing ploy by French salt companies, similar to so many other supposedly beneficial culinary tricks for which the average consumer has to pay extra. At the same time, I have greatly enjoyed the grey salt, first with mainly root vegetables but eventually just becoming my everyday table salt as well. Sometimes it’s inconvenient because the flakes are so large, but I’m not culinary-minded enough to be the type of person to buy multiple different salts for multiple different purposes. I’m a freelance writer, I’m not rich, you know? Anyway, this whole project with Mahala has made me so much more aware of the complete range and use of different salts not just internationally but also just in Scotland. What I’ll do with this new awareness, honestly I don’t know. I do think the next time the roads freeze over and the salt trucks start trundling around I will pause and wonder, is that truly the best use for salt? But also I will have to admit that I don’t know the answer to that question myself, and I will probably just walk away from the trucks, carefully, so as not to slip. Awareness does not necessarily mean a change in behaviour. But also it doesn’t mean that there won’t be a change in behaviour either. I’ve already tried to talk with my Mum about some of my newfound salt knowledge, although naturally she didn’t really get it or see why I was trying to talk to her about this. She’s in her 60s, she explained to me, and she has a method which she thinks helps her. Why change that? As for me, sitting here in my 30s, I’ll never say never when it comes to my own salt use. I certainly won’t be running out there to buy the Blackthorn salts or any of the other artisan ones I got to try thanks to Mahala. Don’t get me wrong, I liked them. But did I like them enough to spend the money to buy them when I already own a perfectly good bag of grey salt in my house? Unfortunately not. Maybe my taste buds just aren’t developed enough to appreciate the differences. Or maybe my young experiences with soy sauce has damaged my salt receptors irretrievably. Either way, the thing that spoke to me most throughout this process wasn’t so much the tasting of the salt as it was the history and community around it. Whole towns like Prestonpans having a relationship with salt was unexpected to me, maybe because I had fallen into the old trap of assuming that everything old and Scottish and on the coast was to do with fishing and coal-mining. On top of all that, the relationship between salt and language continues to interest me. “Salt of the earth” is still a phrase clearly engrained in many, but even beyond that, words like salary or salad coming from salt shows just how much that history still plays a part in our daily lives. In gaidhlig, a language I’m still trying to learn, the word for salt is salann, from the Proto-Celtic word salanos, which itself is from the Proto-Indo-European word sehls. Sometimes when I research these etymological things I can’t help but wonder how language might continue to develop, for instance if salt itself will one day be considered a proto- word for whatever might come next. Of course, this is also interesting given the greater context of salt in popular culture, from the Bible, in which cities are turned to salt, all the way to smaller rituals such as throwing salt over the shoulder or using salt as a ward against evil. Salty is a term now used not just to describe food but also people who blame others for their own perceived failure or inadequacy. I myself have been accused of being ‘salty’ when I lose a game of cards or somesuch. At the same time I can’t help but think of saltiness in a seawater context, to the extent that when I do hear the term salty being used for a person I imagine them on a boat somewhere with waves splashing around them. My own relationship to the sea feels generational, although that’s probably also a romanticised way of thinking about it. Both my paternal and maternal grandfathers were at sea at different points in their lives, and both saw the opportunity to be at sea as a chance to escape a harshness of the mainland. In my maternal grandfather’s case, the Japanese occupation of 香港. In my paternal grandfather’s case, a living situation he hated. Even today I sometimes look out to the sea and imagine one or both of them sitting in a cabin on a boat, looking out of a little round window towards the land, towards me. However, my absolute favourite thing about the sea is to swim in the sea. I love feeling that saltiness surrounding me, as well as the fight between body and wave, tide and balance. It’s rare for me to be able to swim in the sea but whenever I do so I sleep incredibly well afterwards, a fact I attribute in part to the saltiness of the seawater. A few months back I was in East Neuk and they had a tidal pool there which was designed so that it sloped in depth much like a regular swimming pool but was linked to the open sea, meaning that it was possible to ‘do lengths’ in sea water. It was very cold but I loved it dearly, just that feeling of being contained within the sea, the smell of salt, the view out into the great expansive world beyond. It was only recently after talking to Mahala that I realised that I must’ve passed by the East Neuk salt factory during that same trip, something that at the time I definitely wasn’t thinking about. During one of Mahala’s salt tastings I actually got to try East Neuk salt and found that I preferred it to the Blackthorn, although admittedly I tasted the East Neuk salt before the Blackthorn so there might have been a subconscious bias towards the first of the two that I tried. Still, would I fork out the money to specifically get East Neuk salt over my current grey salt? Probably not. But I suppose there is something comforting about knowing that it’s available and out there, just like its a comfort to swim in the sea, and its a comfort to know that there’s a salt-shaker on a table at a restaurant, even if you never use it. Sometimes it’s just about having options, I think. Which brings me back to some of the work that Mahala’s presented during this project. Offering people the opportunity to not only realise that there is more than one or two salt types out there but also that they can try different ones, which is a really cool thing to do I think. From the couple of events I was able to attend I was also struck by the variety of people who had been drawn to the tastings, from mother-daughter combos to older people as well as locals and non-locals. As all these people interacted with each other during the events I realised how every single one of them was bringing their own experiences and pre-conceptions about salt along with them into the room. For some of them salt was a central theme of their culinary lives, while for others it was little more than an occasional afterthought. Some of them admitted to loving salt on pretty much everything, others were complete beginners. And where would I have placed myself amongst all of that? I’m definitely a ‘salt’ beginner but I do know my way around a soy sauce or two. Anyway, it got me thinking about it is all. At one event one of the participants mentioned visiting the Cheshire salt mines and how important they had been for their local community and straight away it got me thinking if I had ever lived somewhere close to a salt mine, and if I had then why I hadn’t visited it myself yet. I couldn’t think of anywhere but I’m sure there is. That’s sometimes the nature of these things, isn’t it? A salt mine could be right around the corner from me and because I wasn’t looking for it I might’ve just completely missed it anyway. So perhaps another change that will happen within me from this project will be that I’ll keep a closer eye out for salt mines in the future. We’ll just have to see. In the meantime I have been inspired to think about how I salt things when I cook and/or eat them at the very least. Some chefs call for you to salt or season the pan or the board rather than directly the food and I never know quite how true that is. Similar to how for a long time I refused to believe that adding salt to pasta water made any difference whatsoever, until an Italian friend of mine convinced me that it did really help. And that’s just with cooking! When it comes to eating I’ll definitely be trying more fruit with salt, I think there is something really fascinating about that acidic-salty combination upon a tongue. At the tastings I tried both strawberries and tomatoes and I think I’m probably more likely to try it again with tomatoes.


Sean Wai Keung is a Glasgow based food poet and writer whose work often explores concepts of mixed-ness, identity and migration. His first full length poetry collection, ‘sikfan glaschu’, was published by Verve Poetry Press in April 2021 and was shortlisted for the 2022 Kavya Prize.


This text is one of a series of new writing commissions in response to SALT, Art Walk Projects’ ongoing season of artist residencies. It also forms part of a new editorial partnership between Art Walk Projects and MAP, working together to support contemporary art writing through experimental approaches to commissioning and publishing. SALT culminates in the publication of a book in spring 2023.