In 1783, at the behest of Kamehameha I, European explorer Captain George Vancouver paid a visit to a favorite haunt of the monarch, the community of Kawaihae on Hawai‘i Island. Its cluster of huts hidden within a thick grove of coconut trees seemed to be a typical Native Hawaiian fishing village to Vancouver, until he stumbled upon a large pit dug out of the red earth.
Enclosed with a wall of mud and stone, this pit contained a reservoir of sea water, which seemed odd to Vancouver since the coast was mere feet away. Surrounding it were man-made earthen pans where, Vancouver was told, during the hottest months of the year the water would be transported and left to evaporate, leaving behind a layer of sparkling white crystals. This was pa‘akai, Hawaiian sea salt.
A decade after Vancouver first saw Kawaihae’s salt ponds, Hawai‘i had become the Pacific Northwest’s chief supplier of salt. Harbored fishermen traded for pa‘akai, preserving their salmon catches in it. (This is purported to be the origin of lomi lomi salmon, a popular local dish). Paniolos, Hawaiian cowboys, sold salt-cured meat to passing whalers and merchants. Hawaiian salt’s high quality and rich taste created a demand that exceeded supply from salt ponds, and salt mines, which pumped the mineral up from the earth, became an industry standard.
Today, small plastic bags heavy with the mineral labeled Hawaiian sea salt line supermarket shelves. There’s fine grain and coarse grain, ‘alaea red clay or black charcoal. If you want to go gourmet, there are sea salts infused with smoked kiawe or rum. Or stock up with a trusty five-pound bag that will last a decade. Surrounded by miles of pristine ocean, Hawai‘i produces salt that is purer in taste than the average table salt. ‘Alaea adds a mellow, earthy flavor while pa‘akai mixed with activated charcoal brings a smokey finish.
“Salt is inside us, it’s all around us,” says Norman Berg, lead chef for Sea Salts of Hawai‘i, which includes in its line-up a recent collaboration with Halekulani featuring their trio of classic salts: kona pure, ‘alaea rich red, and uahi black. “So when we use it in flavoring our food, we’re just returning to what we are.”
To see its influence, look no further than the dinner table. Local favorites like lomi lomi salmon, pipikaula (Hawai‘i’s take on beef jerky), and kalua pig cite pa‘akai as a main ingredient. Berg describes how Native Hawaiians would add it to poi for a pinch of flavor. In the past few years, artisanal salt has grown in popularity as local salt makers like Sea Salts of Hawai‘i carve out a niche with their versions of Hawaiian sea salt. Contemporary flavors like Maui onion or Hawaiian chili pepper have made flavoring with pa‘akai customizable.
Harvesting salt from the sea in Hawai‘i dates back to the Polynesians who first arrived in the Hawaiian Islands, and used salt to preserve food for their voyage across the Pacific. In Native Hawaiian culture, pa‘akai straddles the divide between the commonplace and sacred. As the physical manifestation of the ocean, the source of healing and purification, it is integral to wellbeing. Ancient stories speak of how the Hawaiian deity Kāne salted the ocean to preserve its purity. In imitation, saltwater (referred to as wai kuihala, or “water of forgiveness”) and its physical counterpart, pa‘akai, were prized for their purifying qualities. In pī kai, blessings conducted by kāhuna (Hawaiian priests), saltwater is essential. The sprinkling of saltwater, combined with invocations to Hawaiian gods or Christian prayers, is a common practice when ritually cleansing a space.
“Pa‘akai is a lifestyle,” says Malia Nobrega-Olivera as she dips a polished coconut shell into a one-pound bag filled with large grains of salt. She holds the bowl out, encouraging me to have a taste. “You’ll find that it’s sweeter than other salt because of the brine shrimp that live in our salt pans.”
Nobrega-Olivera is a saltmaker from Hanapēpē, the last place in the archipelego where salt is still being harvested through traditional means. She is president of Hui Hana Pa‘akai, a group striving to preserve the last of the salt pans. Only 22 families claim stewardship over this corner of Kaua‘i. Many have been here for centuries, passing their land down through the decades. Nobrega-Olivera’s plot stretches back eight generations.
“Salt was a big part of our life growing up,” she says. In the summer months, they trekked down to the salt pans much like the ones that Vancouver visited. On their hands and knees in the clay and mud, they painstakingly scraped the wells so that only the purest salt water could enter. After a few weeks, when the water had turned white with froth, meaning its salinity has increased, they transferred it to smaller ponds where it remained until it had crystallized into pa‘akai.
Salt from Hanapēpē is particularly valued. For the families here, their salt is sacred—a link to the past rather than a mere commodity. This, coupled with Food and Drug Administration standards, means that Hanapēpē’s pa‘akai cannot be bought. It has to be gifted or bartered for. It is also becoming increasingly rare. Just a decade ago, a month’s harvest could yield several barrels full of salt, but the effects of climate change and development near the ponds have made harvesting nearly impossible. Nobrega-Olivera’s salt pans have not produced pa‘akai in five years.
‘Alaea salt, for which Hanapēpē is best known, is traditionally valued as medicinal. Salt is mixed with ‘alaea clay harvested from the Waimea mountains, producing pa‘akai that is red in color and rich in iron. Native Hawaiians believe that the clay imbues the salt with spiritual properties and can be used in treating all types of ailments. To this day, Nobgrega-Olivera swears by pa‘akai. “If ever I don’t feel pono (good), ” she says, gingerly placing a dab of salt on her tounge as if taking communion, “I just take a pinch of pa‘akai.”
From the first Polynesian settlers to today’s gourmet saltmakers, pa‘akai has been an essential ingredient in Hawai‘i.
Norman Berg traverses the coastline of Oʻahu’s east side.
Modern day Hawaiian sea salt manufacturers hope to honor the traditional gathering techniques of paʻakai.
Surrounded by miles of pristine ocean, Hawaiʻi produces salt that is purer in taste than the average table salt.
Hawaiian sea salts both traditional and contemporary range in color, taste, and texture.
From cuisine to cultural practices, “Salt was a big part of our life growing up,” says Malia Nobrega-Olivera, an expert on paʻakai.
“Salt is inside us, it’s all around us” —Norman Berg