Licorice is one of those things that people usually like a lot or totally abhor. You are pretty much into it or you’re not, there is not much waffling on the fence concerning licorice. I am in the licorice camp.
So there I am on a summer’s day; a kid wandering through Woolworth’s after finishing up a banana split ice cream sundae that I scored for twenty-three cents – you picked a balloon and they popped it and you paid whatever price the little piece of paper in the balloon said. After finishing off that, I became distracted by the pet section with the white mice, the hamsters, and the parakeets. When I left the store and got out to the sidewalk, I was lured by a spicy aroma into the small specialty store next door. We called it “The German Deli”, although that was not the name of the store and I am not sure what other countries the store actually represented…..it was probably more like a gourmet import store. I was maybe eleven years old at the time, if that.
In this “German Deli” there were sausage-y, rich, spiced scents that seemed to seep from the walls. The inside was dark and close. The wooden shelves were stocked with bottles and cans of exotic, Weird and Unfamiliar Things; the things you normally did not see in the supermarket in those days. Chestnuts floating in syrup, pearly white onions in brine, jams made from exotic fruits, unidentifiable items with pretty labels and unpronounceable, magical names. These Unfamiliar Things lured me. I was curious to try something, but almost everything I saw was outrageously expensive to me. However, on one of the lower shelves, a shelf I could easily reach and inspect, round metal tins of Pastilles were arranged in rows. A white tin with little black diamond shapes printed on it said GYMS in black and gold lettering. I did not know what “GYMS” meant, but I assumed the diamonds referred to something like licorice. The writing on the tin was not in English. The tin was affordable to me (especially since I had made such a killing on the banana split) so I bought one.
When I pried the top off the tin, it was filled with little black diamonds that gave off a tangy, acrid, licorice but not licorice scent. Testing one of the diamonds on my tongue, I discovered this licorice certainly was nothing like the licorice that I knew. It was salty, and something else besides. And from that moment, I was hooked. I could eat them one after another. Whenever I happened to be down that way, I would always make a detour to “The German Deli” for more GYMS.
It turned out none of my friends or siblings had the same attraction to the GYMS – as a matter of fact, most of them were disgusted by it – so I was pretty much on my own concerning this discovery. I ate GYMS for years, until “The German Deli” closed…and then we moved away and I forgot about them.
My next encounter with salt licorice happened in Yiftah in the Golan Heights of Israel, where I met a Dutch woman who had brought some from home. She told me they were called “Drop”. These were not little diamond shapes but round and oval black shapes. Again, my immediate reaction to them was so powerful that I was instantly craving them, wanting more and more.
For some reason, Dutch friends keep appearing in my life – none of who know each other – and each one has turned me on to the salt licorice. The second Dutch woman, who I befriended when I parked myself next to the food table at a party (stuffing my face), brought back a bag of black coins when she was visiting her family in Holland. She told me the drop were “zout” and “dubbel-zout”, and indeed the ones with the “DZ” on them were killer salty. Every time her family came to visit or she would visit them, she would bring me a little bag of “zout drop”.
I went to The Netherlands with her, where they have candy stores filled with all sorts of loose drop that you can mix up and buy in bags. It was drop heaven. Some of it was surrounded by a sugar-coating, some of it was softer, or in different shapes. There were sugared, square cubes of chewy stuff called Griotten which also had that taste. It was in one of these drop stores where I discovered the softer, light brown salmiak coins, which are like the salt licorice, but there is something else about them also. They are milder but incredibly addictive. The light brown salmiak became my thing. I will say while I type this, right at this very minute, I am actually salivating for salmiak.
What is this stuff? I had to know what this salmiak was! So I asked our host, my Dutch friend’s cousin, who looked at me like I was insane and said “What do you mean? Salmiak is salmiak!” I took that at face value. There must be something called salmiak that they make the salmiak out of. One and the same in name?
The third Dutch friend entered my life through an internet group of cancer survivors. Not only did she have salmiak, she had it in a kind of chalky round, grayish-tan candy form that came in a roll. I liked this even better. But it seems you could not find this in “regular stores”.
By the time I met my fourth Dutch friend at a holistic center, I figured all these Dutch women and their salmiak was a sign. I am not sure where that sign was pointing, but I went on a quest to find out where I could get salmiak here in the states instead of the intermittent care packages from Holland.
Well, you can Google anything, and I finally did. Salmiak, which is familiar to the Netherlands, Nordic countries, the Baltics and parts of Northern Germany, is salty licorice that is flavored with ammonium chloride, or “sal ammoniac”. It is the ammonium chloride which gives it that kick I so crave.
With a name like ammonium chloride, I have to wonder if it is Bad For You. A quick Wiki check reveals that it is used in metalwork; in zinc carbon batteries; as a food additive in baking; a flavoring for licorice; is known as noshader in India and Pakistan, where it is used in food for crispness; is sometimes used as an expectorant; and also as a soldering flux, to name a few things – not all very appetizing and maybe a bit questionable. Dutch health organizations advise not eating more than 50 grams of licorice a day, as the body would have to metabolize the glycyrrhizine, which is the compound which provides the sweet taste. Too much of that stuff can cause edema and hypertension. However, it is also supposedly inhibits liver cell injury. All of this is more information than I think I need. I have never gotten to the point where I have keeled over from salmiak, and none of my Dutch friends have ever had a salmiak-related problem either.
So far I have not found a really good source for salmiak. I think I might look for a store and order it. Tonight.