By Léo Azambuja
Each summer, 17 families return to a small stretch of red earth near the ocean in Hanapepe to continue a tradition spanning several generations. It’s the only place in the world that still makes in a traditional way the Hawaiian sea salt, or pa‘akai — “to solidify the sea.”
“Basically, it is part of our culture, Hawaiian culture,” said Frank Santos, who started working alongside his mother on the salt beds in Hanapepe, Kaua‘i’s Westside, a half-century ago.
The flaky, crystalized Hawaiian sea salt is only made during the summer months, said Kuulei Santos, Frank’s daughter. During the winter, that whole patch of red earth between Salt Pond Beach Park and Hanapepe Airport is usually flooded.
By the end of May, or earlier if it’s dry enough, the families come back to the area to start working on the salt beds, or pune‘e. It’s a backbreaking, time-consuming endeavor, and interestingly enough, there’s a lot of mud involved in creating a product that turns out pure white.
“You get dirty doing this, your clothes get stained, you smell … It’s a very dirty process,” Kuulei said.
Additionally, there’s absolutely no money involved. The Hawaiian pa‘akai made in Hanapepe is not available for sale anywhere in the world; it can only be given away or traded.
The Santos family manages two wells that provide enough salt water for 12-to-14 beds. If it’s a good year — meaning a dry season — the Santos family will do three-to-four harvests, each filling up about 12 pakinis, or large buckets. If it’s a bad year — a rainy summer — there will be no salt; exactly what happened last year.
Kuulei said she only fully embraced the family tradition after she became a young mother. From then on, she has been one of the most vocal advocates of this ancient Hawaiian practice. Her children joined the family tradition a lot earlier.
“I came here when I first walked,” said Waileia Siale-Santos, Kuulei’s youngest daughter.
When Waileia was 4 years old, Frank built a tiny salt bed for her. Now 13 years old, Waileia looks forward to come back each year and redo that same bed, teaching younger children what her grandfather once taught her.
Kuulei said there is something special about working together as a family and creating something difficult and time- and energy-consuming; and then give it away. Sometimes there will be about 25 family members working together.
“There’s something to be said about being able to stand on the exact same place that my grandmother stood, and my kids’ great-grandmother, and create a product just because we love our culture, we love our history, we love the fact that we can get together as a family and do something unique and then give it away,” Kuulei said.
This month, the Santos family will again embark together on their summer-long journey.
The first thing to do is empty the wells, or waipuna, and clean their walls. Within a day or two, water naturally fills up the wells. The presence of brine shrimp in the wells is a good sign; the shrimp love salt water.
Meanwhile, family members will use rough rocks to clean the salt beds that have been left unattended since last season.
Dark-grey mud is harvested from the surrounding area and properly cleaned before being poured over the salt beds. The beds are then smoothed with large, smooth rocks.
Once the mud hardens, the beds are ready. Salt water is transferred from the well into a waiku, a special holding bed. There, the water heats up before it is transferred to one of the salt beds. In the beds, water evaporation causes salt crystals to form and sink. Every two or three days, a family member will come by, add more water and stir the salt.
When it’s time, harvesting is done by carefully raking the salt layers and placing the salt in baskets. The salt is then dipped into fresh water to rinse off mud and other debris, and left to dry for up to a month-and-a-half.
The top layer of salt is pure white, and is usually used as table salt. The middle layer has a pinkish color from the brine shrimp, and is used mostly for cooking. The bottom layer has a dark, muddy color, and is left on the bed until the season ends. This darker layer is used in fishing coolers, for pickling, in blessings or taro-field and fishpond maintenance.
Some people may also harvest red clay from the mountains in Waimea, and blend it with the white salt to produce ‘alaea salt, a reddish salt rich in minerals.
“Once people taste the salt, they want more of it, the taste of it is so sweet, it makes you want to use it on all your food,” Frank said.
His wife, Abbey Santos, said the whole process is a nice family tradition that promotes bonding.
“Everyone wants to be a part of it,” Abbey said.
However, many issues threaten the tradition, according to Kuulei: Dust from the nearby airport and roads, homelessness in the county park, feral cats, old waterlines bursting, and people partying in the parking lot and leaving behind trash and broken glass, and even needles and condoms.
But Kuulei has long played an active and vocal role in protecting the salt pans.
“For every tradition, you need your kupuna, you need your keiki; and without this, it won’t thrive and continue,” she said of the elderly and the young children. “And you need us – the middle generation – to help fight to keep it protected.”
Frank said many entities have tried to lease or acquire the land, currently under jurisdiction of the state Department of Transportation. Keeping it as is, he said, is where the value is.
“This is truly a gift given to us,” Frank said of the salt-making tradition. “It’s so important we teach the young.”