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Oh My Cod! Fishmongers Cringe at Salt Ban

Saltfish, also known as cod fish, served with rice and sweet plantains is a breakfast staple in Jamaica, said head-cook Beryl Barclay of Sa Lena West Indian Restaurant in the Bronx. (Astrid Baez/The Bronx Ink)

Saltfish, also known as cod fish, served with rice and sweet plantains is a breakfast staple in Jamaica, said head cook Beryl Barclay of Sa Lena West Indian Restaurant in the Bronx. (Astrid Baez/The Bronx Ink)

In Jamaica, salted cod is enjoyed at breakfast with fruit.  Dominicans and Puerto Ricans add adobo to the pungent fish for a twist on a traditional recipe that dates to colonial times.  Italians serve cod, often called baccalà, served in tomato paste with potatoes.  With so many dishes gracing menus across the Bronx, the one thing cooks agree on is that the fish tastes best when it preserves some of its saltiness.

“You soak the cod in water for as long as three days, changing the water everyday, but it’s still going to keep some of the salt used when it was cured,” said John Cosenza, a fourth-generation owner of Cosenza’s Fish Market on Arthur Avenue. It’s that briny quality that could get cod yanked from menus if a proposed salt-ban is passed in New York state.

Brooklyn Democrat Felix Ortiz introduced new legislation on March 5 prohibiting the use of salt in food preparation by restaurants and forcing authorities at the federal, state and municipal levels to brand the savory seasoning a health and economic threat.

The announcement comes on the heels of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s attempt at encouraging New Yorkers to cut back on sodium consumption.  If passed, the bill would impose a civil penalty of up to $1,000 per incident on restaurants caught adding even a pinch of salt to their dishes.  The mayor’s more mild-mannered approach aims at reducing the amount of salt in pre-packaged and restaurant food by a quarter in the next five years.

Ortiz claims that banning the use of salt entirely in the preparation process will give consumers the option of whether to add it to their meals. Ortiz did not respond to calls for comment.

The potential ban on salt has many of the city’s chefs concerned.  In an interview for the Daily News, just days after the announcement was made, celebrity chef Tom Colicchio expressed his concern for the restaurant industry in New York City.  “If they banned salt, nobody would come here anymore,” Colicchio said.  And what of cod, the salted fish?

“It’s a popular fish to use in Italian recipes during the holidays,’’ Cosenza said. The market sells as many as 20 pounds a day during Lent and well over two tons a month in December alone to individual consumers and restaurants.

Any good cook in New York City will tell you that the staple ingredient in seasoning is salt.  Ethnic cuisine is specially known for a piquancy and zest that is not easily achieved without this controversial mineral.

“You just cannot fix a meal without it,” said Beryl Barclay, top chef at Sa Lena West Indian Restaurant in the Bronx.  Barclay has worked in the food industry for nearly 25 years in Manhattan and the Bronx.  Her best selling dish, cod, comes pre-salted.

Customers coming in for a morning meal at the eatery situated on a slope in Grand Concourse can be treated to the official dish of Jamaica.  Ackee and saltfish, otherwise known as codfish, is the most popular breakfast item on the menu, Barclay said.

She prepares the cod days in advance, soaking the fish in cold water for up to two days before actually cooking it to remove most of the salt.  The cod is then sautéed using a little oil, onion, tomatoes and black pepper.  If not with ackee, Barclay often serves the meal with a side of rice and peas adding fried sweet plantains for a taste that’s close to home for many Caribbeans in the Bronx.  The subtle spice of pepper and mellow tang of cooked onion are discernible, but there is no mistaking salt as the more superior flavor note.

“If we can’t use salt, what then?” Barclay asked.

The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene estimates that 1 in 4 adult New Yorkers have high-blood pressure, and the agency’s most recent Health Bulletin suggests limiting salt intake to decrease the risk of hypertension, and by extension, heart disease and stroke.  The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, a team of expert medical and scientific researchers appointed by the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, concluded in a 2005 report that the relationship between salt consumption and blood pressure is “direct and progressive without an apparent threshold.”

In November, the committee advocated an incremental reduction of the daily sodium intake to 1,500 milligrams for all Americans.  The current limit is set at 2,300 milligrams daily for the general adult population.

On a Friday night in March, salted dry cod or bacalao, as it’s known throughout Latin America is a particularly popular dish.   At El Valle Restaurant on Fordham Road, the Catholic tradition that originated in Spain of serving cod with the meal is still faithfully observed during the Lenten season.  “We offer bacalao a la criolla, for lunch or dinner every Friday during Lent,” said Angela Damascino, a waitress at El Valle Restaurant.  That’s cod with tomato sauce, for the uninitiated.

At El Valle, similar to other ethnic restaurants, bacalao is soaked in water, shredded, and finally cooked in garlic, tomato sauce, pepper and adobo.  With salt being one of the main ingredients in adobo, it’s practically inevitable in the Latin rendition of this seasonal favorite.

If you call any other day of the week, you’re not likely to find bacalao on the menu.  “It’s most popular during religious holidays and that’s mostly when we serve it,” Damascino said.

The 18-year-old restaurant serves the largely Hispanic community of Fordham with typical Dominican and Puerto Rican cuisine.  Here you’ll find bacalao is served alongside white rice.

At this place and others like it, the disappearance of cod, chefs say, would be met with no small amount of bitterness.

“Salt is an important dietary element in our culture,” Barclay said, “and we’ve come a long way from home to share that here in the U.S.”

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