Local Hawaiian sea salt adds a savory tang to sweets, soothes sore muscles and is a favorite in spa treatments around the world
I can honestly say that before now, I have spent less than five minutes of my entire lifetime thinking about salt. That’s probably true for most of us. Salt is something that we all take for granted. It’s on our tabletops, in our cabinets and all over our food, and yet, it’s something that’s just… there. I mean, come on, it’s salt, right? What is there to even think about? After a trip down to Hawaii’s Kohala Coast, though, I found out that there’s a lot more to salt than just using it as seasoning for our French fries.
Centuries ago, salt was essential to life around the world. Without refrigeration, salt made it possible to preserve food through tough times. The early Hawaiians knew this all too well, which is why salt was equally as valuable as meat in their society. After all, what good is a massive hunt if all the meat spoils within a few days? So the Hawaiians harvested salt from the natural resource surrounding them: the ocean.
“My family would eat salt pork, salt beef, salt fish,” says “Aunty” Leina’ala Keakealani Lightner. “That was our main diet.” Aunty Lei, as she’s known, is a Cultural Specialist at the Ka‘upulehu Interpretive Center and took me down to the shores of Kalaemano, the area north of Kona where salt has traditionally been harvested. There, we saw man-made salt pans called poho pa‘akai (there are also natural salt basins called kaheka) that were basically flat volcanic rocks surrounded by a short wall of other rocks that held seawater before evaporating to leave salt behind. That salt made life possible for the Hawaiian people on this isolated chain of islands in the middle of the gigantic Pacific Ocean.
It wasn’t just used for food preservation, though. Throughout Hawaiian history, salt has also been used as medicine: for healing cuts and wounds, sore throats—you name it—and, according to Hawaiian culture, the magical combination of scalding hot water and Hawaiian sea salt can cure it. For active men, specifically, it’s hugely helpful in healing aching muscles by soaking in the salt.
Today, salt is still a major commodity in Hawaii. On the island of Kauai, enormous pans are set up to collect salt which is then mixed with volcanic red clay to form the Alaea sea salt used as an exfoliant in spa treatments around the world. At the Hualalai Spa on the Kohala Coast, they have an entire apothecary featuring ingredients from around Hawaii including a multitude of salts. One of those ingredients is a coffee-infused salt from the island of Molokai which forms the basis for their Coffee Mocha Scrub. Using the coffee salt, cacao nibs, cocoa butter and dried hibiscus flowers as a scrub, I was essentially turned into a human latté, and I loved every second of it.
Hawaiian chefs are incorporating local salt into their repertoires as well. Over at Hualalai Grille, Executive Sous Chef James Ebreo makes a rub for his steaks using local salt from the Kohala Coast. Hubert Des Marais, executive chef of The Fairmont Orchid, goes a step further and makes an exclusive chocolate Hawaiian salt blend using local cocao nibs (Hawaii is the only state in America that grows cacao) and dried chocolate oncidium orchids that works perfectly as a curing agent for meats, or as a topping for ice cream and other sweet treats that could use a salty contrast.
Don’t let that fool you into thinking the use of Hawaiian salt is limited to professional kitchens. In fact, it’s evolving with the rest of the food movement in America and now you can even find artisanal smoked Hawaiian sea salt thanks to Sam Wilburn of Hawaiian Volcano Sea Salt. The salt itself doesn’t come from the Mauna Kea Volcano that dominates the island, but it is smoked there using two local woods: guava and kiawe, a cousin of Texas mesquite. I met Wilburn at the Waimea Homestead Farmers Market and was shocked to find out that the salt harvested from the waters around the Big Island are much lower in sodium than regular table salt. It actually comes from 2,200 feet deep in the ocean, and the presence of all kinds of minerals like calcium, potassium and magnesium makes it a much healthier product than plain old table salt.
When I got back home, I stared at the boring canister of salt I keep in my cabinet. How had I underestimated it this whole time? Sure, I would sprinkle a little on my vegetables before roasting and toss a dash into soup for seasoning, but I never even considered that it has uses beyond that. Now I know otherwise and I’m armed with some Hawaiian sea salt to prove it.
We’re in the thick of grilling season, and that salt has transformed my steak game. When I get a cut, I now soak my hand in a bowl of hot water and sea salt, and it heals so much faster than before. Give it a shot with your meat at home (or non-meat, if you are vegetarian), and I bet you’ll be just as convinced as I am. I may have overlooked it before, but mark my words: This is one Green Guy who will never take salt for granted again.
JASON KESSLER is a lifestyle writer/columnist for Bon Appetit, Food Republic and a slew of other publications. Follow him on Twitter @FlyDine.