History Of Hawaiian Salt
Salt crystals colored by the red soils of Hawaii
Article by: Barbara Bowman
About Hawaiian Salt; By: Miriam Kupihea and Pua Kawaihalau (Archived at Hanapepe Public Library)
"Paa Kai everybody can spell, right? The meaning is salt. Okay, we got our first word, Paa Kai. All right, Hawaiian, take your hand of of your mouth so we can understand. Paa Kai, good."
So began Cissy Kaai as she explained the Hawaiian salt making process. Born in Puna on the Big Island, Mrs. Kaai has been involved in salt making at Hanapepe on Kauai since 1969, shortly after the hui Paa Kai was formed to save the traditional Hawaiian methods from extinction. As a child, she learned from her grandparents to be obedient, yet kind, and remembers Kauai as a good and respectful place during her childhood. "Today, people aren't as respectful and polite," according to Cissy, "but life is much easier".
"Okay next word Wai-Ku. Wai means water and Ku means to stand. English interpretation, preserve. Well, the Hawaiian words are quite technical; they use their terms backwards to English ways, or the subject is first and the verb comes after. So when we put these two words together, we turn out to get 'water stand'. The Wai-Ku is a pond."
"Next word we have is Alae. I have the Alae right here; it's the red dirt. It's not just any old red dirt. We have to test it. I have a glass of water over here with some dirt in it. If you take a close look, you will notice that the water fizzes from the Alae dirt. When you see that it fizzes like a 7-Up, you can see all the bubbles going up, then it is Alae dirt. Now, if somebody gives you red dirt and tells you this is Alae dirt, you have to put it in water for testing. If it doesn't fizz then throw it away."
"Malama Pono. Most grandparents will tell you this Hawaiian word. Malama means to treasure and Pono means property. to you, it means to hold on to things, preserve it, treasure it, our property. I use this word especially for this kind of talk, because this particular subject was told to me three years ago. Very touching to the Hawaiians! They were going to cover up the area where they pick salt and make a golf course. The Hawaiians felt it wasn't good, because they wanted to make salt. This among the Hawaiian islands is the only island where we are able to pick salt the way we do. Other places, they have salt from the beach; it's salted from the ocean. When the tide is high, it washes ashore to the rocks. Then they form into little puddles. When the tide is low and the water is low, it's very hot. Then the puddles crystallize and turn into salt. People who go to the beach pick it up to salt their fish. But right here on the island, you can fix the salt the way you want to, as long as Mr. Sunshine keeps shining."
"I'd like to tell you a little story that goes with this process. I've learned it, and I'd like to tell you the way I was told. This is many years ago. Everything goes back to ancient times. Okay, most of you have heard of Madam Pele, the fire goddess. She's still active; she's supernatural. This was the first island among the Hawaiian chain. Therefore, Madam Pele was here first."
"When they started that salt pond area, it was just an area covered with Keawe trees. Today, it's clear. You can see lots of red dirt. Well, that's where they fix the salt. This area is situated down the beach in Hanapepe. Well, before you get to this salt pond area, you will notice an opening with the road going down, and on the side you will see lots of coconut trees. That's where they fix their salt. Right in that area, there was this one lady who was at the beach; she caught too many fish that day. She didn't want to throw them back in the sea, because the fish had already died. She didn't want to waste the fish that she caught."
"Many grandparents will tell you not to waste your food. If you do you will starve someday. So she kept that in mind; she didn't want to waste her food. So, she just wept and cried. Then a voice came from that bushy area and asked her why she was crying. She told her story; she caught too many fish and kept salting her fish until she ran out of slat. So the lady came up to her and told her to follow. She followed the lady to that busy area. Underneath the tree, the lady dug her bare hands in the ground and dug up a big hole. As she dug, she found water. She dug the hole big enough and told the lady to put her fish inside and let it set there for awhile, then to take it out and let it dry up in the sun. In that area it is really hot during the summertime."
"So she did as the lady told her. And the lady told her, 'Malama Pono', meaning treasure what I have told you. You will always have salt. Just be clean about it and leave a nice area and always keep the place clean."
"In ancient times they had a god for everything. The lady was Madam Pele. Because she was supernatural, they guessed maybe she was a god. So they gave thanksgiving. She took some of the alt and placed it back in the sea. The level of the sea is the same level of the water that you have when you dig under the ground in that area. That's where they have their wells for the salt beds. She did that, and from then on, she had her family fixing salt. Not just the water, but when the salt crystallized it formed into salt. From then on, she started carrying on the same tradition; every time she started fixing her salt, she always gave some back to the sea. This continued year after year."
"I have here, typed out, the various steps you take in having your own salt made. When you get to that area, you have to have this iron. The ponds are already there, because the people did it year after year. Not anybody can go there to pick salt. Because you have to be a family of the group that fixed it. It was only a family before, but then they started having their friends and in-laws, and finally it got so big that they had to narrow it down. Then they formed a group and called it Hui Paa Kai. Hui means a unity, not related, like and organization. Now they have the authority to pick salt in that area, but the place really belongs to the state. They were told not to sell their salt in the stores. You can find some packages with red dirt added. If you notice on the outside of the package, it says it is not good for human consumption. In other words you're not suppose to eat it, because if you do you're going to die. It's not true, because we eat it!"
"Every time you go there to check your salt beds, you re-do the same thing you already did. The pools are already there. We call them the wells. We pick our salt only during the summer months because it's really hot. During the winter months it's really rainy, and the water from the fields pours right into that area, because it's low. They can't have any salt, so that's why they only pick their salt during the summer months. Therefore, we go down early in the morning to get our places ready. We have to dig up the ground on the side and from a well. We use the dirt from that area to build our wells. we roll the dirt up into a ball and then place it on the side of the rim of the pan. Then we have to smooth it up with our hands. You have to make like, you know how the masons fix their cement when they build a stone wall? Well, we have to do kind of the same thing for the walls of our pans. We kneel on a board. The reason why is because if we go in and kneel down, the marks of our kneeling will be in there, and we wouldn't want that to happen. We want it to look exactly like the batter in the cake part, so we smooth it our really nicely.
Then we go off of it, really slowly. We continue to do this until all the pans are finished. When the pans are all done, we fill all our water into all the pans. We fill each one from the wells. Our Wai-Ku is where we let the water stand for about three to four days, Then it really gets really salty. From that Wai-Ku we put the water into the pans."
"All of our utensils are all homemade tools. for a scooper we use a gallon can. Then we added a long broom stick for the handle makes it easier, because there are six beds close together and only a foot apart. Just enough room for us to walk when it is time for harvesting. We don't want to walk on the sides of our beds too often, because we will get the dirt into our beds, and we won't have nice white salt. So we use this scooper to scoop the water and place it in our beds."
"At the corner of each bed, we place a burlap bag. The reason why we use this burlap bag is because we don't want the dirt to come up from the ground. It will get into our salt. At the corners of our Wai-Ku you will always see a burlap bag."
"Now, after Mr. Sunshine comes along and heats up the water, part of it will evaporate, and part of it will crystallize. Then, it will look like snowflakes. Very light like snow. The Wai-Ku doesn't turn into salt, but the beds does. The Wai-Ku is where we let the water stand. It takes about three to four days to crystallize in the beginning. After we have a whole batch crystallized, they get heavy at the top and just settle at the bottom. You will find much whiter salt at the bottom of the beds."
"You have to add water every evening. When you go down early in the morning before sunrise, you will have to fill your beds and be sure you have enough water. In the evening, check it up and fill it up again. Go through the same process morning and evening, or just once a day. Be sure you have water in the beds so it won't dry up. Dip the salt and it will cling to the bottom, and when you take it out, be sure you don't get any dirt into it. that's why we keep adding water. Then we measure the salt with our fingers, like how we measure our rice, and then we put the same amount of water. We do kind of the same thing with this, and we measure our salt to see how high it is. Sometimes it's about an inch and a half or two inches. We feel it is time to harvest."
"It's just a plain old screen. We formed it with some wire and board.
See, the reason we do this is because we want to scrape the salt, we wash it in a colander or a Japanese bamboo basket. that's the bamboo basket over there. Now, we scrape the beds from one end to the other, but we have to be very careful, and be sure the dirt doesn't get into it."
"Pour it carefully over the burlap bags, so the dirt doesn't come up from the bottom and scrape it carefully. You leave some of the salt there. Don't scrape it all clear to the bottom. After you have it all taken out and washed, we use things like this to stash it away. This is supposed to be a bucket. Hawaiian word Pakini. It's a big tub. Some people take it on their trucks or trailers to take home. They have an old bed with the springs on it. Then they stand it up high just like this table. they cover it with burlap bags. Throw their salt, so that the sun will dry it up. After it's dry, they pack it up in the burlap bag and store it away. The longer you store it they say the better taste it will be."