Explore Hawaii

Hawaiian Sea Salts Hold Cultural Significance

Hawaiian sea salt is linked to cultural tradition and healthy living

Cupping his hands as if he was holding grains of salt and raising them close to his nose, Norman Berg demonstrates how to appreciate the aroma of Hawaiian sea salt. He then makes the same gesture but, this time gently rubbing his hands, explaining that this is how to wake up your herbs. Since 2012, Berg has worked with Sandra Gibson of Sea Salts of Hawai‘i to develop a gourmet line of flavored all-natural sea salt, from garlic and fresh herbs to Maui onion and spicy seaweed.

“You don’t need a lot of salt,” Berg asserts. “You just need to use a high-quality product. And this is true with salt … or any ingredient for that matter.”

Chef Norman Berg pinches grains of salt, which he describes as superior. (Courtesy Sea Salts of Oahu)

Indeed, Sea Salts of Hawai‘i’s Kona Pure is as unadulterated as the waters from where they derive. From depths exceeding 2,000 feet, the deep waters are pumped through a pipeline and brought to shore then stored in “hot houses.” After four weeks of slow evaporation, the natural sunlight transforms the pond of seawater into pure white, sea-salt crystals.

“The word salt in Hawaiian is paʻakai,” Gibson explains. “Paʻa means solid or hardened and kai means ocean water. So when youʻre gifting paʻakai, you’re wishing that person good wishes and you’re solidifying your relationships.”

Fresh fish served on a bed of sea salt. (©Iakov Filimonov/Shutterstock)

In ancient Hawai‘i, a fisherwoman named Hi‘iaka set off to the shores of ‘Ukula in Hanapēpē and caught far too much fish. Crying with guilt for catching more than she needed, Pele, the volcano goddess came to her with a solution and led her to a patch of land near the beach. As she dug a pit into the earth, it filledwith ocean water that had emerged from the ground. “Put your fish in here for a little while, then dry it out in the sun,” Pele instructed her. Hi‘iaka quickly learned that the tiny crystals from the ocean water would work to preserve her bountiful catch.

This mythical story of Pele’s gift of salt to the Hawaiians sparked a tradition among families who made it their kuleana (responsibility) to preserve Hi‘iaka’s ways of salt harvesting. Varied in color and more crystallike than its store-bought counterpart,

The use of Hawaiian sea salt has moved beyond the kitchen and into spas. (©Alex SG/Shutterstock)

Hawaiian sea salt assumes roles beyond the kitchen. And it turns out that salt is the only rock we eat.

“Hawaiian sea salt is much healthier than regular table salt,” Gibson says. “It contains trace minerals, as well as magnesium and potassium, which help maintain the body’s electrolyte levels.”

While living on Kauaʻi, Gibson experienced the meaningfulness of traditional Hawaiian salt and its cultural significance, which inspired her to establish Sea Salts of Hawaiʻi.

Giving the gift of Hawaiian sea salt is solidifying a relationship. (Courtesy Sea Salts of Hawaii)

“We were fortunate enough to be gifted some Hawaiian sea salt when we were living on Kaua‘i so I thought it would be great to share the story of gifting salt,” Gibson says. “It has such symbolic meaning in the Hawaiian culture.”

And if we’re hearing more and more about Hawaiian sea salt these days, it’s for good reason. It’s a big deal in the culinary world and even at spas. So says Mark Kurlansky in his definitive book, “Salt: A World History.” So important is this cherished substance that he relates it to the origins of agriculture, sexual desire, the American Revolution, the domestication of animals, the independence movement of India, Egyptian mummification, the invention of gunpowder, the establishment of cities and trade routes, and countless events large and small. Even Captain James Cook, writes Kurlansky, commented on the excellence of Kaua‘i salt in the late 18th century.

Fortunately for us, Hawai‘i has a prominent place in the global salt hierarchy. How could we not? We are surrounded by ocean, our islands bathed in salt air. The tradewinds that sweep in from the northeast have come a long way to reach us, over briny water all the way. And, for culinary and ceremonial purposes, the ingenious Hawaiians have a rich history of making and harvesting salt from evaporated sea water in depressions they carved in lava or rock, or in shallow ponds by the ocean.

Their sea salt, was an article of similar value to the fish hooks and artifacts they so arduously crafted. Maui county, which includes Moloka‘i and Lāna‘i, has its own array of multi-hued Hawaiian salts, available in different varieties and in limited supply. Black salts may be treated with charcoal, a pink salt with the mineral-rich clay called ‘alaea and even a green salt treated with bamboo leaf and other extracts.

“Salt has more smell than taste,” says Berg, once again cupping his hands and bringing them close to his nose. “A pinch of Hawaiian sea salt goes a long way.”