The National Health and Medical Research Council has issued new guideliness on good eating, and it urges us all to reduce our salt levels. It said so ten years ago, too, but the advice is now stronger. We can’t do without salt, and it in ancient times it was a much traded substance. Sodium chloride is needed by the body in all sorts of ways. Too little of it, when you are under stress physically — in sport, for example — can lead to cramp.
But too much salt is bad for you, too, because it can lead to high blood pressure and to a greater risk of heart attack and stroke. How much is the right amount? The NH&MRC doesn’t prescribe a limit, but the WHO says 6 grams a day is all you need, and suggests that 9 to 12 grams seems common. My wife Bev suffers from Meniere’s condition, which is an occasional dizziness that can lead to a vertigo attack. Fortunately, she seems to be in ‘burnout’, the end of the condition, which is age-related. No one knows exactly what causes the condition, but it is argued that the cause of the dizziness is excess fluid in the inner ear, which controls balance. The more salt you ingest, the more water your body needs to balance the salt.
Now for Meniere’s sufferers the recommended maximum is 2 grams a day. If you want to really deal with salt, however, you should try to avoid it almost completely. Salt is present in all natural foods, in part because it is the most soluble of all substances. In fact it is present in rainwater that comes from clouds generated over the ocean. So you need it and you can’t avoid it. But you can avoid eating more of it, and we do not buy anything that has more than 120 mg of sodium chloride per 100 grams, and that is a tiny proportion. Actiually, we don’t buy much processed food at all.
And as the family cook I have been learning how to do this over the years. It is all about taste. We Australians have been used to a high-salt diet for a long time, probably because of the sun and heat, and the use of salt in preserving food. I was astonished, when I first lived in Europe, to discover that butter was unsalted: it tasted wrong to me. Over the years, the amounts of salt in our processed foods have come down, partly because of taste changes and partly because of the medical warnings. But the level is still high.
Salt improves the taste of bland foods. I grew up with salt on porridge, and still add it there for myself. I think it is highly desirable with tomatoes and eggs, but if you can’t use salt, what then? You use other flavour enhancers, like lemon, herbs and spices. An evening meal with eggs as the basis pushed me to think of some way of lifting the flavour, which I would normally do with chives and pepper. In one of my books I came across an old French recipe, and adapted it to the new need.
Scrambled eggs with Dijon mustard
For two of us, four eggs, beaten with a fork, a medium-onion-sized collection of chopped spring onions (mostly the white stems), a big nut of unsalted butter, about two tablespoons of finely grated low-salt cheese, and a little freshly-grated pepper. We get the cheese from Tasmania (Pyengama dairy), and while it will do in a toasted sandwich with a strong unsalted tomato relish, or its equivalent, it is pretty tasteless by itself.
I used half the butter to brown the spring onions, not too much, and diced the rest of it to mix with the beaten eggs and the grated cheese. I poured that mixture into the pan and started moving the egg mass around with a wooden spoon, at a very low heat. It takes a while to get anything to congeal, but eventually it does. The trick is not to get any of it hard, but to finish with a cooked sauce of almost creamy egg. Just before it was ready to serve, on or by toast, I added a teaspoonful of Dijon mustard and stirred that around.
The outcome was a tasty simple supper dish, not heavy on the tummy, but decently filling. The cheese added to the texture, while the mustard gave a pleasantly strong tang, not instantly recognisable, to the eggs.
I have developed a small cookbook of low-salt dishes over the years, and once thought of publishing it as Leaves from the No-Added-Salt Diner’s Cookbook. Perhaps it could be an e-book, available here. But if any reader would like to know of how to by-pass salt but still have a tasty dish, I will be happy to supply examples.