The first time I ever experienced salty licorice, I was in Norway, jet-lagged, cold, and wondering if my Airbnb host was ever going to explain how to use the elaborate keypad outside his building. I walked into the nearest convenience store, grabbed a pastel package of gum, and assumed it would be something pleasantly fruity. As I angrily stomped back toward the apartment, I threw a piece toward my back molars, chewed twice, and came to a dead stop on the sidewalk.
You know how you feel right before you barf, when spit pools under your tongue and your mouth feels ten degrees too hot? That sensation doubles when you have your first salty licorice—a.k.a.salmiak or salmiakki—experience. I spat the gum into a gray pile of slush, but 15 minutes later, I chewed another piece. And another, and another, and when my passport was stamped a week later, the only thing I had to declare was the pile of salty licorice in my backpack.
Salmiakki can be a hard sell to those of us who haven't grown up eating it, and that group includes pretty much everyone outside of the Nordic countries, Holland, and northern Germany. Eating it can be unpleasant, even borderline painful, and can make your sinuses feel like you've just been upended into the Dead Sea. But tell that to someone who loves it, and they'll just politely nod and put another piece of hard, salty candy into their mouths. At this point, I'll do that, too.
I was in Stockholm last week and, as I wandered through more than one store dedicated entirely to lakrits, I started to wonder why there is such a region-wide obsession with all things licorice (and if you don't think there's an obsession, then you've never seen the disappointment on someone's face when they're told that the store is temporarily out of licorice-flavored potato chips).
"I grew up with it and do think it's an acquired taste. But why we eat it, I have no clue," Maria Ehnemark told me. "It's been like this my entire life."
Ehnemark and her partner, Lars Tidén, own Lakritshandel, a licorice store in Stockholm's Södermalm neighborhood,and keep countless Swedes and lakrits-curious visitors satiated with their favorite salty delicacies. The two of them constantly import heavily salted varieties from Finland, chocolate-and-licorice combos from Iceland, and literally hundreds of products in between. (Despite the country's near-universal love for it, the licorice root isn't native to Sweden).
"Twenty years ago, when we opened the shop, it was just magazines," she said, gesturing toward the small shelves at the front of the store. "Now, the licorice has taken over. Licorice has become more accepted, and has moved into the nicer room, if you know what I mean. Before that, it was, 'it's bad for you, it gets your blood pressure up' and so on."
A number of health benefits have been attributed to licorice, with rumored abilities to cure everything from chest congestion to upset stomachs to the SARS virus (no, really), although these claims seem to be mostly anecdotal with little scientific support. Some have even suggested that licorice's ability to raise blood pressure is one reason that it's so popular in often-frigid Scandinavia. (As for the limp red version and black jellybeans we get in the United States, they're barely even licorice at all; our lackluster candies get their flavor from artificial anise).
These potent salty confections get their kick from ammonium chloride, or salmiak, which is added in amounts that range from "like licking the bottom of a peanut package" to " oh my GOD why does it burn like this who decided this was supposed to be fun??" No one seems to know when or why ammonium chloride was first added to the candy, but the blame is largely placed on Finnish pharmacists in licorice lore. In the 1930s, Finnish pharmacies made their own cough medicines, and some long-forgotten sadist added ammonium chloride to the syrup because it could allegedly help loosen mucus. Why someone decided that a mucus-reliever would be an excellent addition to candy that is supposed to offer pleasure and recreation seems to be lost to history, but his or her legacy lives on, one painful piece of salty licorice at a time.
So what's the appeal? It seems like if you ask a dozen people, you'll get a dozen different answers. "It may be because we have always preserved our food with salt. This is true for the whole of Scandinavia," Lars Tidén told me. "Other sweets are far too sweet for me."
That rationale was echoed by Annica Triberg, who has co-authored a book about licorice. "Licorice falls into the Swedish palette: salty and sweet. Many Swedish dishes like gravad lax and types of sill [pickled herring] are salty," she told Lost in Stockholm. "Salty licorice brings out comforting, homely flavors that we love."
Ehnemark patiently led me through Lakritshandel, describing some of the most popular products they sell. She picked up plastic package of black and pink hearts, labeled Salta Kärlekar—"salty love"—and explained that it was a winner at Finland's annual salmiakki competition. It looked innocent enough, so I grabbed a bag from the shelf.
"I'll take one," I said.
"It's very strong," she warned.
"That's OK," I said, putting it on the counter.
She shook her head. "It's… Finnish strong."
Those three words echoed in my head as my eyes watered and my tongue sizzled just seconds after putting the first piece in my mouth. It was all-around horrible, painful, and completely unpleasant.
I ate the entire bag that night.