Enga is known as a rugged land with a long history of tribal fighting. However, the Engans are not only fierce warriors but also renowned salt makers. In the past, Enga salt was a highly-valued trading commodity and was used in bride price ceremonies. Today, there are only a few passionate salt makers keeping this old tradition alive.
Hundreds of exuberant performers with elaborate headdresses and richly painted bodies are stomping their feet to the rhythmic beats of kundu drums. One lean and sinewy man, oblivious to the ebullience of the Enga Show, keeps doing his business, with the smell of burning wood coming from his corner. His name is Marcus, and he is one of a handful of remaining Enga traditional salt makers.
His demonstration of Enga salt making technique quickly attracts a large crowd. The process is laborious and lengthy. “We leave tree logs in the lake for several weeks so that the salt is dissolved in the wood, dry and burn the wood, then take the ashes and strain the salt,” explains Marcus. The resulting salt is not pure white as we used to see but black, or rather grey, and has a distinctive flavour. Wrapped in leaves and attached to a wooden stick for the ease of transportation, the salt is ready for trade.
One of the most rugged PNG’s provinces, Enga is known for its controversial Porgera mine, the exuberant Enga Cultural Show and sand painting. But in the past Enga was renowned for its salt making.
Traditional salt making was a trademark of Enga province. Enga salt was a highly-prized barter trading commodity in the country’s ancient trading routes. In the past, the Engans traded salt with the other provinces of Papua New Guinea for steel axes and bush knives, sago, clay pots, Digaso oil, and kina shells. Some trading routes led to the coastal Gulf and Sepik provinces while others to the neighbouring Highlands provinces such as the Southern Highlands and Hela. The salt was so important that it was also used in bride price ceremonies together with pigs, the paramount of PNG wealth.
Salt was a sought-after product not only in PNG but worldwide. An enhancer of flavour, it is also a natural preservative of food, which allowed fishermen, hunters, and farmers to store excess of food, especially, meat and fish.
Traditional salt making is still practiced in many countries. One of the earliest and well-known methods used to produce salt is by evaporation of sea water. This is also the most photographed salt making techniques. Some countries used to burn salt-impregnated peat or eelgrass (the case of Denmark and Holland) and leach the salt from the ashes to make a strong brine, which was then boiled to extract salt. Instead of using eelgrass or peat, the Engans use trees. Not any trees but trees of a special kind.
I come back to Port Moresby with a precious gift of two big bunches of salt wrapped in leaves, a reminder to visit one day the Laiagam salt ponds. On the way back, my salt attracts curious looks, and I am repeatedly asked what is inside the leaves. It turns out the Enga salt fell into oblivion, at least outside Enga province.
In Port Moresby, only some elders remember the Enga salt. “Try to put it on your steak. It will turn green,” tells me one of them. A bit sceptical, a few days later I do the experiment, and have a nice steak for dinner – green coloured and tasty. The minerals contained in the Enga salt must be the culprits for this rather unusual colour grading.
The Papua New Guineans have now switched from their traditional salt to commercial table salt. The industrialisation of salt extraction techniques around the world has led to the availability of cheap table salt but also to the vanishing of traditional salt making. But one indefatigable character and a local traditional salt maker, Marcus, defies the change and keeps this old tradition alive.
Today, despite a drastic decline in number of traditional salt makers and the relatively high cost of hand-made salt, demand for artisan, organic products is steadily increasing. In contrast to the common refined table salt, which is mechanically harvested under industrial conditions, natural salt is rich in minerals and has a complex flavour. The growing popularity and interest in artisan salt have contributed to the revival of some salt making communities. Maybe one day Enga salt will also make it to the tables of PNG restaurants?
Location: Traditional salt is made in Enga province of Papua New Guinea. Salt is produced at the Laiagam salt ponds located closer to Lake Surunki than to Laiagam, the main town of the Lagaip-Porgera district.
How to get there: Although Wabag airstrip is closed, Air Niugini, the Papua New Guinea national airline, and PNG Air offer weekly flights to Wapenamanda airport located about 45 min drive from Wabag town.
Additional information: Bring warm clothes. The highest province in Papua New Guinea with elevations of up to 2’000 metres, Enga can be very cold, especially, early morning.
If you plan to visit the Laiagam salt ponds, you can coordinate your trip with Enga Cultural Show held in Wabag town in August, a week-end prior to Mt Hagen festival. For the dates, visit Enga Cultural Show website.