Salmiakki (or salmiak), a candy mostly seen in the Nordics, has an unusual taste for a sweet: it’s actually salty. 

Salmiak’s characteristic salty taste actually comes from ammonium chloride, not sodium chloride (salt) — though the difference is hard to spot. 

Salmiak is usually known as salty liquorice. The Finns are the number one consumers of salmiakki (a Finnish word); in Finland, you can get it in all forms: powdered, sharp, soft, boiled, chewing gum, mint, ice-cream, and even in chocolate. It’s also very popular in Sweden and the other Nordic countries.

Unique salty taste

It is hard to describe the taste of salmiakki as it’s very unique — it’s salty and tangy, with a rich hint of aniseed.

Ammonium chloride, the source of salmiakki’s unique salty taste, is the main deciding factor for its strength —  more ammonium means a stronger sensation. 

There are countless different versions of salmiakki sweets. Some have a mild salmiakki taste, palatable to people who have only just been introduced to salmiakki. Mild salmiakki is almost like liquorice and is often shiny and glossy.

Although salmiakki can also be strong without being sour, hardcore salmiakki is very sour. 

The most extreme sweets are coated with a good helping of ammonium chloride, creating an overwhelming salty and sour salmiakki effect. 

Even though some might not like to admit it, eating just salmiakki gets to your taste buds after a while —  this is why fruit sweets are often served as accompaniments to salmiakki. 

The balance has to be just right  — a mild salmiakki sweet needs to be paired with mild fruit sweet, whereas a sour salmiakki sweet needs a sour fruit sweet. They are often sold together in variety packs. 

Some people love the contrast of salmiakki and chocolate, and many chocolate bars have salmiakki versions (same goes for ice cream).

Home of salmiakki: Finland

Salmiakki was first used as a cough medicine sometime in the early 20th century. Salmiakki was thought to cure illnesses and it can still be found in pharmacies.

Finland is the place to be if you’re after salmiakki, as it is most popular in Finland. You might even struggle to find a packet of sweets that does not contain any form of salmiakki. 

There are many variations to Finnish salmiakki sweets — here are some favourites:

  • For hardcore sour salmiakki fanatics the “skulls” are a strong favourite. The key here is mixing the “sour fruit skulls” with the “sour salmiakki skulls”
  • The diamond salmiakki is a crowd favourite — these small diamond-shaped sweets can be bought at pharmacies in small paper bags. A simple tasting ‘pure’ salmiakki that gets you hooked
  • Another common form of salmiakki sweets are boiled hard candies with salmiakki powder in the middle. The question is whether to bite in or to take your time until you get to the strong ammonium centre
  • Another famous Finnish salmiakki treat are the ice hockey sweets. The Finnish love of hockey is evident in these sweets wrapped in orange paper adorned with the emblems of the national hockey teams and there is also a fruit version for good measure. 

Love or hate salmiakki

Salmiakki is mostly eaten in the Nordics, Holland, and Germany, and it hasn’t really become a worldwide treat. The problem might be that salmiakki is an acquired taste. 

Most Nordics are introduced to this salty treat early on and therefore become used to it. For foreigners who have never even heard of salmiakki, it’s often a difficult one to swallow. Some say salmiakki is a bit like Marmite — you either love it or hate it. 

If you ask a Nordic what exactly it is about salmiakki that they like, they might have trouble giving you an answer. 

A simple answer would be that salmiakki is simple part of Nordic culture.

Salmiakki takeover

In Finland, salmiakki is often found in other places than just sweets. 

Salmiakki madness can be seen everywhere — almost everything has a salmiakki version. 

Chocolate, toffee, and coffee actually go great with salty salmiakki. Same goes for ice cream. Every form of ice cream has a salmiakki version. 

If you are worried about your breath or your teeth, buying salmiakki gum or salmiakki pastilles is a good choice. 

Salmiakki has also weaved its way into alcoholic beverages. There are many strong spirits with the unique salty taste of salmiakki —  the most famous one probably being “salmiakkikossu” that is enjoyed cold and neat. Its thick black appearance is part of its charm.

You can even get salmiakki meat marinade in Finland…

A source of pride

Even though the Nordics probably wouldn’t mind if salmiakki was more popular with the world, there is also a sort of pride in having something unique to the Nordics that no one really understands. 

In fact, introducing someone new to salmiakki is a strange kind of satisfying ritual. The distortion on their face, their obvious discomfort at eating strong salmiakki, and the immediate question, “how does anyone eat this?” all give the Nordics a deep sense of salmiakki superiority.