I grew up in a Vietnamese household in the Midwest. At home, salt always had a place on certain fruits, especially grapefruit. We would slice the grapefruit in half, sprinkle salt and pepper over the halves and dig into it with spoons. The salt always cut the tartness while the pepper added a little spice and fragrance.
The first bites were always my favorite. You would get that salty, peppery bite up front, and then the tart notes of the fruit would trickle in behind.
It wasn’t until I moved to the South that I first heard of anyone outside of my home or Vietnamese community adding salt to fruit. It surprised me to see and hear about salt on watermelons. I didn’t get it. Unlike grapefruit, which could be both bitter and tart, watermelon on its own is already refreshing and full of summer sweetness, so why add salt?
While salt doesn’t seem like it would make sense, it turns out that a wisp of it on a slice of watermelon creates this magical effect.
“When you add something savory to something sweet — especially fruit at the height of its season — it makes it sweeter and opens up your taste buds,” says Blake Faries, chef de cuisine at Tallulah.
I ran into Faries at the Feast Film Festival while he was in the middle of preparing a compressed watermelon dish topped with Bradford watermelon yogurt, basil microgreens, and a touch of maldon sea salt.
“There are a lot of classic savory things we do to fruit like watermelon,” says Fairies. “Prosciutto and melon. Balsamic and fig. Feta and watermelon. Salt and watermelon is a classic. I’ve done it since I was a kid. My grandmother told me to do it, and you gotta do what Grandma says [laughs]. Adding some acid like we did here with the tart yogurt adds even more layers of flavor.”
There have been many studies trying to find the exact reason why salt triggers our tastebuds to create a sweet sensation while eating certain fruits.
One of the most interesting conclusions is based around salt’s inherent power to draw liquid. Due to watermelon’s low salt content, when you sprinkle salt on the fruit, it draws all of the watermelon’s sweet liquid to the top, creating a surplus of flavor around the point where the salt hits the fruit.
Salt on watermelon has been a long-time tradition in the South. In The State newspaper’s archives, stories of watermelon luncheons and ideas for serving the summertime favorite abound. One story from 1910 responds to a local asking how best to prepare watermelon:
“Cut the ripe, pink flesh from a good-sized watermelon, put it into a freezing can and pack with salt and ice; turn the crank slowly until the watermelon is half-frozen. Serve in punch bowl glasses at the end of dinner. Those who use wine, may add to each glass a tablespoonful of sherry.”
Salt on fruit is by no means only a Southern tradition. Watermelon has always been a precious commodity in Japan, where they also share a long history of salt products paired with watermelon.
In a 1934 edition of The State, one South Carolinian details their travels to the Japanese city of Hiroshima, where they saw at a restaurant “small dishes of salted watermelon and pumpkin seeds on the table and in the middle … were dishes of mustard, salt, and soy bean sauce.”
Salt and chilled watermelon is still a popular tradition in Japan today, to the point that they even sell special portable cooling devices — one writer describes the product as “sort of like a baby stroller for Martians” — called “tama-chan” to carry watermelon around in.
Other warm-climate cultures seek out savory combinations with fruit, too. In Latin America and Asia, chili, lime and salt are often paired with not just watermelon, but also a whole range of fruit like apples, pineapples and guava to add salty, spicy, sour elements.
What is it about these warm areas that spurred the desire to put salt on watermelon?
In the ’90s, Linda Bartoshuk of Yale University coined the term “supertasters” to describe people who tend to find sugar sweeter, sodium saltier, and bitterness to be unbearable, but at the same time are heightened to flavors of fat and spice. Because of this combination, supertasters tend to crave more salt to block bitter notes and enhance the other aspects of whatever they eat. The study found that there were more people in warmer climates that were supertasters, which may be why salt became a popular choice on fruit.
There is also the simple fact that it is hot, and when it is hot we perspire. The combination of the cool, refreshing watermelon with a hint of salt helps form the perfect Gatorade-esque combination that meets our hydration needs in the piercing summer weather.