For those of you who have watched Samin Nosrat’s cooking documentary series “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat”, you (re)discovered the four fundamental elements that can either make or break a dish. Each episode transports your taste buds to a different corner of the world, uncovering the unknown, underutilized superpowers of salt, fat, acid, and heat.
After traveling to the Danakil Depression of Ethiopia, I found striking similarities between Nosrat’s culinary docuseries and the Afar region where the site is located. Or perhaps my food-obsessed mind has stretched this analogy too far.
In late March, a six-day trip to Danakil rocked my world. Because it is often described online as “the most inhospitable place on earth,”; “gateway to hell,”; and “Mars,”, I had some trepidation about the visit. I’ve made it back alive—fully acknowledging the hours my aunties spent praying for me—and can confirm the internet was right! At its core, the Danakil Depression is an amalgamation of salt, acid, fat, and heat—a landscape that defies the limits of life.
The following is an attempt to highlight what makes Danakil such an otherworldly, diverse place in this world. From saltiness to heat, the region’s physical environment mutated by the minute. I could barely keep up with the facts and stories, but here is my attempt to describe, and relive the wonder.
The Danakil Depression is the source of virtually all of the salt sold in Ethiopia. The region is mined by about boasts 750 miners who extract an average of 1.3M tons of salt each year. At several points along our drive, we intercepted caravans of camels with what looked like ice sheets strapped to their backs but were actually tiles of salt. Weighing about 4 kg each, these tiles or amole, have historically been used as currency in Ethiopia since the 20th century. Today, around 3,000 camels and donkeys traverse the flats every day to transport salt from the depression to Berahile, Ethiopia. Driving along the salt flats was exhilarating, with each of the nine land cruisers in our group maneuvering along a different path to avoid cracking the tender surface.
To my surprise, we weren’t limited to admiring the salt’s fractal-like beauty from afar, we plunged feet first into several pools of water. While on Lake Assale, a modest 394 feet below sea level, a hole, about the size of a hot tub, held shimmering turquoise liquid. Its lukewarm temperature was inviting, but its buoyancy was unexpected and sent our limbs flying everywhere. We then stumbled on another swimming spot, Lake Afrera, which suddenly appeared as we drove to the end of an industrial salt factory. Unlike the hot tub, Lake Afrera was sizeable, and I was convinced we’ve just discovered the Dead Sea.
After 13 hours in the car from Addis to Mekelle, our last major stop before Afar, the smells and sounds emanating from Tsigereda, a hole-in-the-wall breakfast stop, were all I needed to refuel for our four-day desert drive. Ten of us, huddled around a brightly colored plastic bench, were sandwiched between several other parties of similarly eager configurations. Within minutes, bottomless baskets of fresh bread, ful, and feta arrived and the feast began. For never having tried ful in my twenty plus years of life in an Ethiopian household, it became my new favorite dish real quick. Rounds and rounds of tin bowls, clearly worn down by love, were filled with oily, tomato-y, berbere-y goodness. Fattening, but worth it. I would dream of Tsigereda for the remainder of the trip, and clearly, still am.
Dallol was one of the most memorable sights of the trip. Constantly referred to as “the colorful area” by our guide, and rightly so, we hiked up a landscape that became more Mars-like as time went on. As we reached the main plateau, acidic geysers were sprinkled everywhere. The ground beneath our feet resembled a vast coral reef and we used our scarfs to ward off the unpleasant smells of sulfur. Dallol is a terrestrial hydrothermal system that is famous for its fluorescent, rainbow moonscape. The colors are produced by the oxidation of different iron phases embedded in rock and formed neon hyper-acidic, hyper-saline pools (not suitable for swimming this time!). Similar to Nosrat’s analysis, acid never fails to spice things up. Little did I know I was signing up for a crash course in geochemistry, but thankful for the stunning views imprinted in my mind (and on my Instagram) forever.
Last, but certainly not least, heat is the element I was warned most about, and felt most strongly while in Danakil. My eyes were always glued to the car’s thermometer, with each one degree Celsius increase in temperature welcoming a celebratory swig of water. Days hovered around 46ºC, and because of this, we hiked at night, relying all too calmly on headlamps and camels to blaze the trail. All of this was to sleep under the power of Erta Ale, or “smoking mountain” in Afar, known for holding the longest-existing lava lake since the start of the 20th century. The volcano is situated on the East African Rift System where three different tectonic plates meet. As we neared the crater, a new rock was crumbling beneath our feet. The name “gateway to hell” was beginning to make a lot of sense and we watched the sunrise with our feet dangling over lava.
Danakil remains one of the fastest growing tourist attractions in Ethiopia, especially as relations with Eritrea have improved, and there is so much more to learn about this unearthly destination. As the main sites are neither monitored nor protected by national or global policies, we are all responsible for being ethical travelers. In six days, my previously narrow understanding of Ethiopian culture—from language to cuisine—was broadened. From the kitchen to the depths of the Danakil Depression, salt, fat, acid, and heat have demonstrated the lives of their own.