The look on my face must have said it all, because the woman running a small Scandinavian store not far from Brussels burst out laughing. “Yes, it’s an acquired taste! But we, Swedes, are addicted to it,” she said, fetching a glass of water for me. The topic of conversation–and the reason I couldn’t stop myself from wincing–was a piece of jet black candy called salmiaklakrits in Swedish or salmiakki in Finnish, salty licorice. It’s a confectionery made with licorice extract and ammonium chloride that gives it an unusual saltiness–the more ammonium chloride is added, the saltier the candy tastes. Licorice is an acquired taste to begin with, but salmiakki is in a category of its own.
Besides the Nordic countries, salty licorice is also enjoyed in the Netherlands and the north of Belgium and Germany. People who love it are a passionate bunch and active proselytizers. If a Dutch friend casually suggests you try something called Dubbelzout drop, beware that you’re about to make the acquaintance of an extra salty licorice. I guarantee, the memory of that drop will stay with you for a long while afterwards. After your friend has delighted enough in your suffering, she will then pop the stuff in her mouth, make audible signs of pleasure and give you a smug–“my taste buds are so superior”–smile.
Since my job involves thinking about flavors and scents, salty licorice has intrigued me enough to try it again and again. It’s believed that salmiakki was created by pharmacists making their own cough tablets. Ammonium chloride was used as an expectorant, but it also gave medicine an interesting flavor. (It’s also used in cookies to give them a crumbly, delicate texture.) Candies can come in a variety of forms–soft, hard, coated with sugar, and flavored with anything from berries to caramel.
My initial difficulty with salmiakki was not only the salty taste, but its combination with the intense sweetness of licorice. If you’re used to Twizzlers flavored with anethole, an aromatic compound with a sweet, anise-like flavor, real licorice comes as a surprise. The root of Glycyrrhiza glabra contains glycyrrhizin, which is 30-50 times sweeter than sugar, and the flavor is layered and complex, blending nuances of anise, dark honey and caramel. The sweetness lingers much longer than that of sugar, which means that the flavor of salmiakki won’t go away after the first bite. It will keep on getting stronger.
Everything that makes salty licorice strange also makes it curious–the unexpected juxtaposition of flavors, the sensation on your palette and the richness of true licorice. After the first shock wears off, you’re left with a velvety mouthfeel. Take a sip of water now and notice how it tastes sweeter. The more I tried salty licorice, the more it captivated me, which is why I’m now playing the same proselytizing role my friend did, except that I’m giving you fair warning.
If you’re game for this new experience, start out with the mildly salty candy in small doses. You’ll also find that it comes in a dazzling variety, and if you travel to the ancestral lands of salty licorice, you’ll find it flavoring brandy, vodka, ice cream, and even Coke. The best part is that once you’ve acquired the taste for salmiak, you can ambush unsuspecting people with it. Believe me, this part alone is rewarding enough.
Where to find: The UK site All Things Liquorice has an overwhelming selection. In the US, Dutch Sweets and Swedish Sweets and Imports offer a wide selection of salty licorice and other regional delights. If you’re shopping at the former and are kinder to your friends than I am, then consider giving them Stroopwafels–thin waffles sandwiched with spicy caramel.
New Yorkers can find salty licorice at Sockerbit, a Swedish candy store at 89 Christopher St. They also have a branch in Los Angeles at 7922 West 3rd Street.
Photography by Bois de Jasmin