Cecina: Salt, meat and changing times

Salt as well as meat, is one of the many things we are told to consume “in moderation”, or to avoid altogether given health, ethical or environmental concerns. However, salt has been an important part of human history serving as one of the world’s main commodities. Salt accentuates the flavor and texture of foods. Its mineral components preserve food as it inhibits microbial growth by drawing moisture out of the food. The name “salt” (or sal, in Spanish) is linked to Salus, the Roman goddess of health and prosperity. Furthermore, salario, the Spanish term for wage, comes from the use of salt as a method of payment for soldiers. Nutritionally, salt provides sodium and chloride, two of the essential minerals for many body functions. If iodated, it keeps our thyroids happy by providing the essential mineral for its functioning.

The marriage of salt and meat has given us delicious results including: jamón Serrano, ibérico, prosciutto, and carne cecina. Cecina can simply be defined as salted meat. It is also called tasajo or, in Puerto Rico, carne vieja (old meat).The type of meat used and the process varies depending on where you are.  In Cuba, tasajo is said to be traditionally prepared with horsemeat. A similar case is seen in Spain. In Puerto Rico, carne vieja is made out from dried, salted meat. Like bacalao (salted cod fish), tasajo should rest in water overnight before preparing, to remove the excess salt.

Personally, I have not tried Puerto Rican tasajo yet. It is not common in the Puerto Rican tables nowadays. I did tried the Mexican cecina, sliced beef cured with salt, left marinating for 3-4 days resulting in delicious, tender and flavorful tacos, as these:

Tacos de Cecina
Sembrado Restaurant (NYC)

Cecina was brought to Latin America and the Caribbean from Spain, from the northern region of León. However, the tradition of salting and airing meat for preservation was already present in the Americas, using the traditional animal protein sources of the time, such as deer, rabbit, and others (See: C. Lavin). These traditions continue today, as I witnessed during a stroll along an urban town in Chalatenango, El Salvador:

Meat drying outside
San Ignacio, Dept. Chalatenango, El Salvador

The salting meats allowed for a more secure and constant access to animal protein. Throughout history, access to meat has been a symbol of status. In some context, cecina or other types of dried or cured meats, may be a food of the poor, or those lacking access to fresh meat or the technology to preserve it. As access to more modern preservations techniques became available, people may opt for fresher meats, and leave tasajo behind. However, the staying power of these foods goes beyond the material function they play. Now, in contexts with refrigeration and better transportation systems, such as NYC, cecina is valued for its flavor. Its purpose is to be enjoyed by choice and not by necessity.

 

Thanks to C. Espada, for the topic suggestion. 

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