Native Hawaiians used pa‘akai (sea salt or, literally, “to solidify the sea”) to season and preserve food, for religious and ceremonial purposes, and as medicine.
Preserving food like i‘a (fish) and he‘e (octopus) was essential not just for storage on land, but also to provide nourishment during ocean voyages.
In Hawai‘i, sea salt can be collected from rocky shoreline pools, were it occurs as a result of natural solar evaporation. Native Hawaiians also harvested sea salt on a larger scale through the use of man-made shallow clay ponds.
The Hanapepe Salt Pond area has been used since ancient times for the production of salt for food seasoning and preservation.
Every summer, the families of this region gather to build their “pans” to prepare salt for the next year. The earthen pans impart a distinct red hue and flavor to the salt.
Pa‘akai from the Hanapepe Salt Ponds is created by accessing underground saltwater from a deep ancient source through wells and transferring the saltwater to shallow pools called wai kū, then into salt pans that are shaped carefully with clay from the area.
The farms near Hanapepe are one of only two remaining major areas in the Islands where natural sea salt is still harvested; the other spot is on the Big Island at Pu‘uhonua o Honaunau.
But the unique red salt, called ‘alaea salt, is produced only on Kaua‘i.
This type of salt-making is unique and authentic, and harvested traditional Hawaiian sea salt mixed with ‘alaea, a form of red dirt from Wailua, is used for traditional Hawaiian ceremonies to cleanse, purify and bless, as well as healing rituals for medicinal purposes.
It was a crucial commodity for Hawai‘i’s early post-contact economy; visiting ships, especially the whaling ships, needed the salt for food preservation.
Today, the Hanapepe fields operate under that concept of communal stewardship; the salt may be given or traded, but not sold.
The harvest season is in the height of summer, when the waves are calm and rain scarce.
The first task in making salt is to work on maintaining the salt beds, smoothing wet mud over the walls of the beds, filling cracks and reinforcing the structure of these holding beds; this can take up to a week.
The punawai (feed water wells) are cleaned of leaves and debris, so that only the purest sea water enters the rectangular holding tanks called wai kū, literally “water standing.”
The brine is left in the wai kū to evaporate, which can take up to ten days depending on the afternoon rains.
When the water in the wai kū turns frothy white and crystals form on its surface, the harvester gently pours it into the lo‘i.
For several weeks, a rotation of new water, sunshine and evaporation continues until a slushy layer of snow-white salt forms.
The salt is harvested by slowly and carefully raking the large, flat crystalline flakes of salt from the base of the bed, and transferring them to a basket.
The salt is then dipped in buckets of fresh water to rinse off the mud, and remove rocks, chunks of dirt and other debris.
With each immersion into the water, the salt flakes change shape, beginning to resemble large grains of what one would recognize as table salt. The salt is drained and left to dry in the sun for four to six weeks.
Depending on conditions, a family may complete three harvests in a season, yielding as much as 200 pounds of salt. Like wine, time is generous to salt; it mellows and gains character as it ages (older salt is smoother.)