One of Hawaii’s oldest traditions is making pa`akai, (pa ah kai) or Hawaiian sea salt. Pa`akai means to solidify the sea, and Kauai is the only place in the Hawaiian Archipelago to make salt according to ancient traditions. This labor-intensive process is done by hand, and involves a multistep process of backbreaking work.
These techniques have been passed down for over 100-years, and are still practiced today on the West side in Hanapepe Town near Salt Pond Beach. The Salt Flats, (also known as the Salt Patch), is a large, flat stretch of red dirt about 200 yards from the ocean that holds the salt beds. Like a taro patch, the lo`i is filled with rows of oval beds, that rise 5 inches from the ground.
About 30 of us are sitting under a canopy tent in hard-backed chairs listening to Auntie Janet, her daughter, and her granddaughter talk about Hanapepe sea salt. The free seminar is part of the Prince Kuhio celebration. The Salt Flats lay 50 yards behinds us, cordoned off with black construction fabric fencing, and covered in water due to the heavy rains from several weeks ago.
Normally, the beds would be dry or close to dry, and ready for preparation. Aunty Janet thinks this year, they may get to start in July.
There are 20 families, including Auntie Janet’s whose goes back five generations, and two ahead, that harvest the salt beginning in late March through September. Salt is never sold, as dictated by generations before, and can only be given away or traded. Three types of salt are made here: white, pink and red. Molokai and Maui produce salt for sale, but not according to the ancient ways.
Family members of all ages participate. Keiki as young as three-years-old “help” by getting their hands in the red dirt, black clay and crystalized salt. Their young lives are infused with the ancient practice.
When winter storms have subsided, and the salt beds begin to dry, families clean the old clay out. Beds are lined with freshly harvested black clay, and smoothed with a round lava rock. Each rock has been specifically selected to fit the curvature of the individual’s hand. The black clay creates a moisture barrier from the ground. Once dry, the bed is slathered in clay again, smoothed, and dried, before it ready for salt water.
Deep wells, called Punawai, (poo na why) average 8 feet deep and 4 feet wide. Water travels from the ocean through underground lava tubes, and fills the wells. The water is “scooped” out using long poles with tin pails attached to the end, and into a wai ku (why koo).
The wai ku, or shallow holding bed, holds water that is heated in the summer sun. When it’s warm, this water is transferred to a puna, (poo na) or waterbed. It is here that the magic happens. Water begins to crystalize, and forms layers of salt. When the bed is full, salt is gathered with a tool that looks like a rake with a screen instead of prongs. It’s collected into hand-woven baskets and rinsed. The color of the top layer of harvested salt is white, which families use for table salt.
There is a vein of red clay in the mountains of Waimea, and young men are sent to harvest `alaea. The edible clay is blended with white salt, making it a rusty color, and fortifies the salt with iron. The balancing attributes of yin and yang; light and dark, are known in Hawaiian as kane (kah ney) and wahine (wa he nee), or male and female. Red salt represents kane, white, wahine.
The middle layer of salt in the bed is a pinkish color. This salt is rubbed in wild boar before it’s cooked in an underground oven called an imu. It’s also used for blessings and as a medicine.
Throughout the season, the bottom layer is never harvested. It acts as a “seed”, that encourages new salt crystals to form. Once a week, a family member will stop by to see if the bed has enough water, and how much salt has formed.
Only by checking, can one tell if the salt is ready for harvest. When this is determined, a call, usually given by the kahuna, or eldest and most knowledgeable salt maker, is made.
Children are pried from their toys, teenagers from their friends and young adults from golf courses, and meet the family for harvest. A typical week may yield about 5, 5-gallon buckets per waterbed.
This goes on throughout the summer, until rain and cooler temperatures inhibit the water from evaporating. Once the season is over, and the salt is gathered, the family will remove the brown, bottom layer.
Families use it as a bleach, for pickling, to line fishermen’s coolers, and give it to kahuna for blessings. It’s also used as a sustainable means to maintain taro beds and fish ponds.
“I have a great big pish pond,” says Auntie Janet in a pidgin that’s easy to understand, “and I wash my pish with the salt. They get scaly yea? sometime da pish, and dey get sick. So I take the salt with my hands, and the fish come swim right on top, and I just wash them with salt. I wash my pish and I trow dem up to anadah pond, and I wash, and I clean the whole pond. It kills the algae back down.
“Both my grandparents were taro farmers,” she continues. “and we take all this salt, and we soak the whole patch. We nevah use chemicals to kill da weeds. It also kills any kine insects that are around dere, and da crawfish all come up. We scoop dem all up, and it’s dinner or lunch for us.”
Auntie Janet has us laughing with her animated tales, and we’re grateful to these families who share their knowledge and keep the ancient traditions alive. Incase you want to go, know that entering the salt ponds is kapu, unless you have been granted permission by a member of a salt making family.
Before this seminar, I knew that I couldn’t buy Hanapepe Sea Salt in a store, but little else. Memories of first time I received some as a gift colored my spirit a deep red.
I was new to Kauai and attending courses at an organic farm in Kilauea. My teacher had a 5-gallon bucket of the pink salt tucked under the counter of the farm kitchen. She plunged a mason jar deep into that salt, and gave it to me.
At home, the light pink color, mild salty taste, and big flaky crystals delighted me and I garnished every meal with the crunchy nuggets. In class, we given weekly assignments on vegetables, that included creating some type of art corresponding to the vegetable we were learning about. Everyone drew beautiful pictures of a thriving plant.
My art was cooking. And my goal was to showcase each vegetable with a simple preparation that highlighted the unique flavor.
Usually, I made the food at home and brought it to class, but one day I came to class unprepared. We had just finished eating lunch, which we always had after working in the gardens, and before lecture. I was in the kitchen, rushing to finish my class project of lightly boiled cabbage drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and a light sprinkle of Hanapepe sea salt.
As I eagerly waited for the water to boil, I noticed I forgot to bring my salt. I ducked under the counter, unscrewed the lid of the 5-gallon bucket, and dipped my hand inside. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a look of consternation cross my teacher’s face. From then on, I brought fully prepared assignments to class.
To read informative articles, or watch inspiring videos, click here. To read a passionate blog by a 30-year salt maker, her desire for preserving the Salt Pans, and the frustrations that got her banned from the salt making hui, click here.