By Jan TenBruggencate
On hot summer days, on rocky shorelines throughout the Islands, you can find pockets of white crystals in depressions in the stones.
They are places where waves deposited salty ocean water, which then evaporated in the sun to leave glistening bits of sea salt.
As a kid on the island of Molokai, I can recall dipping a finger to taste the natural salt, and sometimes scrubbing it on the skin of a fresh-caught fish before grilling it over a kiawe wood fire on the beach.
Pure white salt was a rare commodity in much of the pre-industrial world. That led to such terms as someone being “worth his salt.”
The word salary derives from the Latin salarium, which was an amount of salt given Roman soldiers along with their pay, or a portion of their pay designated for purchasing salt.
There are parts of the world where salt is found as mineral deposits, and is mined. There are such salt deposits on every continent. But many of the world’s major salt companies also collect fresh salt from solar plants that evaporate salt water.
In early Hawai`i, sea salt was collected in several ways. It might be picked up from hollows in coastal rocks, or it might be collected from naturally occurring coastal lowlands that are occasionally flooded by the sea, or from actively managed salt pans like the ones at Hanapepe (see article in this issue).
Hawaiian salt became a valued commodity for the export trade during the 1800s. There was saltmaking on every island, from the Kaloko saltworks on the Big Island to the salty lakebeds of Ni`ihau.
Missionary Hiram Bingham wrote of standing on Punchbowl Crater and being able to view “the plain of Honolulu, having its fish-ponds and salt making pools along the sea-shore.”
Early whalers sought provisions in the Hawaiian Islands, including vegetables like yams, but also barrels of beef salted with Hawaiian sea salt.
The West Coast fishing industry often turned to Hawaiian saltmakers for the salt to preserve their salmon. Reportedly, this generated an active barter trade: Hawaiian salt for Mainland salted salmon—which led to the Hawaiian delicacy, lomilomi salmon.
Today, the salt making and salt selling of the islands is varied.
There are traditional family saltmaking ventures like those at the Hanapepe Salt Ponds, where a small group of families manages clay salt pans, drawing saline water from shallow wells, and evaporating it in the sun.
There are also industrial salt facilities like the one at Royal Hawaiian Salt at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawai‘i, which uses solar-evaporated deep ocean water collected off Keahole in Kona. And there are cottage industries like Molokai’s Pacifica Hawai‘i salt operation.
Hawaiian salt is a popular product, and if you go online you’ll find dozens of brands. It’s not always clear how many are more “Hawaiian style” than actually Hawaiian sourced.
Many are actually Mainland or foreign salt repackaged to look Hawaiian. But Hanapepe salt, not for sale in any store, is the real thing.
- Jan TenBruggencate is a Kaua‘i based writer and communications consultant.