Salmiakki: Lava, Leather, and Licorice

Is there is a flavor more polarizing than Salmiakki? Most Finns love the stuff, but do a quick YouTube search and you’ll find a host of videos named something like “Visitors taste Finnish candy!?” which chronicle unsuspecting newbies’ first forays into the dark art of salmiakki. Cringing faces contort with surprise and distaste. Talk about needing Sisu! It’s very comical and all… but I’m here to tell you that salmiakki needs a new PR agent.

Salmiakki is Finnish for the compound sal ammoniac (ammonium salts), the (rare, but) naturally occurring mineral, ammonium chloride: NH4Cl.

Crystalline Ammonium Chloride

Ammonium Chloride is found naturally in surface lava fields, near fumaroles (steam vents of underground volcanic activity), and although it rapidly dissolves when exposed to water, it can be mined. One origin story holds that ancient Romans collected the mineral near the temple of Ammon in Egypt and called it salt [sal] of Ammon [ammonocius]. The chemical compound ammonia that we know and love as the active ingredient in Windex and cat litter boxes, got its name from sal ammonocius. Ammonium Chloride can also be artificially produced by capturing the chemical reaction of combining ammonia and hydrochloric acid. It has been used industrially for metal cleaning and flux, as crop fertilizer, in a special photographic technique for fossils, and in the tanning and dyeing of leather.

Ok ok, on its face this admittedly does not sound delicious. Yet.

Salmiakki may have first been ingested medicinally. Its an effective expectorant and is currently found in some cough and cold preparations. I’ve also seen it available in powder form in a packet from our local Apteekki (pharmacy). It’s not completely unexpected that some started to use it off label…. think of salmiakki as a multi-purpose powdery medicinal flavoring agent. You know that white powdery substance left at the end of a box of sour patch kids? That’s a combo of citric or tartaric acid and sugar, and gives the tart taste to sweet tarts or sour gummy candies. You can think of salmiakki in that way. It imparts a tart, vaguely metallic, umami saltiness. In the Nordic countries, northern Germany and The Netherlands, there is great passion for the marriage of salmiakki and (sweet) black licorice. In fact the word salmiakki has been culturally co-opted to mean salmiakki flavored licorice. The most traditional candies are diamond shaped.

Here in Finland, salmiakki is just about everywhere! Candy culture is a thing, and Finns are ranked 5th world-wide in per capita candy consumption (2017 Euromonitor International). You can find salmiakki in a large percentage of the ubiquitous self-serve penny candy bins in food shops and kiosks, as well as hanging in the pouch candy section. It comes in myriad brands, shapes, and strengths. Here are just a few from the big three here in Finland: Fazer, Halva, and Panda.

Turns out, I absolutely LOVE salmiakki. When I first tried it, I certainly wasn’t convinced. But once I learned that the ‘salty’ wasn’t actually table salt, I bravely tried again, and like magic, my tongue tasted it completely differently! Just that quick, salmiakki had me in its grip. I have always loved black licorice, so the leap to loving salmiakki while living in Finland was perhaps inevitable. Now, during my weekly trips to Prisma or K-Market for groceries, I’ll swing by the bins and scoop a few loose salmiakki into a candy bag. My favorite ones are the Bubs “skulls” (or are they pacman ghosts?). They are not for the faint of heart as there is both salmiakki powder in the licorice, and heavily dusted on the surface. SalmiYUMMY!

If candy / licorice isn’t your thing, worry not. You’ll find salmiakki ice cream, salmiakki chocolate bars, salmiakki hard candy (complete with a salmiakki powder center), and of course salmiakki vodka!

When you visit Finland, salmiakki is a must try!! It is one of the most distinctive and defining flavors in the North.

5 Replies to “Salmiakki: Lava, Leather, and Licorice”

  1. When I was a boy, sal ammoniac was part of my soldering iron set (used to clean the tip). Later in life I discovered it in my lawn fertilizer, and I remembered the soldering iron. Now I find that Karin is up in Oulu eating the stuff like candy. It’s a strange and wonderful world.

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