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Go ahead, treat yourself to salt

Here are some sweet-and-salty Nigerian recipes that embrace one of the world's oldest ingredients.

Thanks to #SaltBae, hashtag and all, we are finally starting to pay attention to the most ubiquitous cooking ingredient on the planet for the past 8,000 years. Salt does more than improve flavor. It intensifies it. It enhances sweetness and reduces bitterness. It’s a natural preservative that gifts us cured meats to enjoy with our wines. It’s a crucial ingredient for ice cream, the balance you need atop a seductive caramel, that crusty char on a thick steak. (Thanks, bae.)

I’ve always preferred the sultry dance of sweet and salt across my palate, but I’ve never not respected this ingredient. You’d be hard-pressed to find a recipe that doesn’t reference or acknowledge the presence of an electrolyte snow.

When I was younger, my parents would take the family off to some far away land, that 45 minutes or so by car to see cousin-this or family-friend-that. There would be mothers comparing recipes while stockpiles of antsy adolescents gleamed toothy smiles and mischievous grins. One day right around Valentine’s Day, we went to such a place. My father told me it was a Nigerian foundation party.

It isn’t possible for me to forget the smells that evening. Jollof rice, stew chicken, and variations of beef and lamb stoked our hunger while visitors paid tribute toward buffet tables. I remember eating a dish that was just the right amount of self-care and I’m going to share that with you.

If you can appreciate the subtle pulls of a tomato's acidity while savoring the ripe sweetness of fried plantain, then you need to start a grocery list. Head nods to the kitchens that keep a stocked pantry.

We need tomatoes (or cheat with a can of stewed tomatoes), palm oil and a ripe plantain. It is okay if the plantain feels soft,and also okay are spots and or bruises. (It can be hard to find plantain in metro Detroit, I suggest checking out Eastern Market.)

Get salt, fresh ginger, brown sugar, and a handful or so of nuts. (I like Brazil nuts or cashews.) Chop the nuts if you have allergies. Pepper is optional -- if you like heat, grab the dried, smoked, and ground Cameroon peppers (or hot black pepper) at your nearest African market.

The hardest bit of work involves peeling and then cutting the plantain into italic ovals. In a non-stick pan with a little bit of palm oil, fry up the plantain until browned and tender. Toss in the nuts just as the plantains brown. In a separate process away from the stove, grab a bowl and mix salt, brown sugar and peppers to taste.

I like to imagine this as a mix to a bag of popcorn or potato chips. You are going to be tossing your finished product in this mix. At this point you can do just that. Take the plantain and place them in a large bowl. (Giant metal based mixing bowls work good for this.) Mix in the seasoning blend and begin to toss. Any shimmy and shake will do. Just make sure that the spices are evenly distributed across the surface of the plantain and the nuts. You can enjoy as-is and I promise you that as long as those plantain were the right kind of ripe you’ll be tasting a sweet and salty treat that really begs fruit to be an entree.

If you want more of the same, then shave and peel some ginger, lightly pan-fry the pulp with a little brown sugar and then set to the side. Break out that can of stewed tomatoes or carve out your own and throw them gently in a bed of sizzling palm oil. What you want to do here is reduce down the tomatoes into a juicy and rich texture. Add a little pepper and salt if you like, and mix in the sweetened pan-fried ginger. This goes a good addition to add a little mix to the already good sweet-and-salty journey.

Most modern diets contain too much salt and consuming too much can lead to hypernatremia, or an imbalance of the amounts of salt and water in the body, in the short term, and increased blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and osteoporosis in the long term. Remember the salt of any interesting recipe is in the mixture, not the bath after the plate has been served.

There are worlds where salt is not traditionally used as a condiment. Its role is filled by inclusion directly to the dish or in the sauces, rubs, dressings, and marinades. Different salts have different mileralities depending on their source, giving each one a unique flavor. But we’ll get into that some other time. For now, treat yourself to salt.

Godwin Ihentunge is a Detroit-based chef and founder of YUM! Village.

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