story by Keya Keita
photos by Chris McDonough
So the story goes: A young woman was fishing on the western shore of Kaua‘i. The sea had been generous, too generous, and she caught more fish than her family could possibly eat in one day. Distressed at the prospect of wasting the sea’s gifts, the woman began to weep. The fire goddess Pele heard her cries and took pity. She told the young woman to follow a rainbow from the mountain to the sea, where she would find shallow pools filled with glistening white crystals. If she rubbed the crystals on the fish, Pele said, her catch would be preserved. This is how Pele taught the ancient Hawaiians to use sea salt, or pa‘akai—literally, “to solidify the sea.”
Today, west of the town of Hanapepe, Kaua‘i, the twelve families of Hui Hana Pa‘akai still harvest sea salt from the same shallow pools once used by Hawaiian royalty. The families are descendants of salt makers stretching far into Kaua‘i’s past; they have passed down from generation to generation not only the techniques of salt-making, but its spirit of sharing the salt, a gift from the ‘aina.
The farms near Hanapepe are one of only two remaining 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. When harvested, sea salt is quartz-white. During the drying process, however, red volcanic soil may be added, which is said to imbue it with stronger medicinal properties and mana, or spiritual power. Only a small amount of the harvest becomes ‘alaea salt, which has been considered sacred by generations of Hawaiians.
When Captain James Cook observed ‘alaea salt in 1778, he misunderstood its significance and called it “dirty salt.” Yet salt, both red and white, later proved to be one of his most valuable discoveries in the Islands. It was a crucial commodity for Hawai‘i’s early post-contact economy; visiting ships, especially those from the whale fishery, needed the salt for food preservation. Hawaiians exchanged salt for salmon with ships arriving from the Pacific Northwest, which led to the creation of a beloved Hawaiian dish, lomi salmon; lomi means “massage,” and refers to the act of rubbing the salmon with salt.
Though the economics of salt have changed, the families of Hui Hana Pa‘akai still maintain the ancient salt beds, not for the money, but to keep a centuries-old tradition alive. “Ownership was a foreign concept for Native Hawaiians; no one can really lay claim to the land or a salt pond,” says Celine Pi‘ilani Nelsen, whose family has been farming salt here for at least five generations. “The Hanapepe fields operate under that concept of communal stewardship: The salt may be given or traded, but not sold. Ever.” The so-called “Hawaiian salt” available in stores, she says, is manufactured; it is not genuine earth-milled pa‘akai. Celine’s family shares the harvest with friends, neighbors and kahuna who use it as medicine and in rituals.