“You need ocean water,” says Kuuleialoha Gaisoa, 45, whose family has been harvesting salt in Hanapepe, on the west side of Kauai, for generations. In Hawaiian, the word for salt is pa’akai, meaning “to solidify the sea,” and the salt from the patch that Gaisoa works is known throughout the islands for its sweet, briny flavor and cultural significance in rituals and ceremonies. Gaisoa knows people who carry the salt in their purses and bury it around their homes as a kind of protection. The 22 families who work the salt patch never sell salt; they only gift or trade it. “If you give someone a little baggie, they’ll split up their baggie and give it to their friends,” Gaisoa says.
Find somewhere warm, near the sea, and fashion shallow evaporation ponds to concentrate salinity. Every summer, Gaisoa’s family collects clay and builds new salt beds. Using buckets, they fill the beds with seawater from hand-dug wells. Every two days, they add new water. A bed is ready to harvest after about four weeks. “Harvest layer by layer,” Gaisoa says. Using a salt rake, remove the delicate top layer first. This is made up of the prized white flakes that French salt makers call fleur de sel. The salt at the bottom is often coarser, more granular and contains more of the color and mineral taste of the substrate it’s held in. In Hanapepe, the bottom layer turns a ruddy color like the soil. Each layer should be washed in saltwater and spread out in the sun to dry.
When Gaisoa was a child, the salt beds were her dad’s concern, but after she had her first child, at 18, she started taking more interest in her Hawaiian culture. In the decades since, she has gone to battle with anyone who threatens the salt beds, a list of adversaries that has included the county, the state, illegal campers and a nearby helicopter-tour company. In a good summer, Gaisoa’s extended family will harvest about 275 gallons of salt, which gets distributed based on seniority and effort. Even before the salt has dried, people start asking for it. Gaisoa’s father keeps bags in his car and will give it freely to anyone who asks. Gaisoa is more discerning. “I’m like: ‘Did you sign my petition? Did you send a letter to the county?’” she says. “For me, you have to be salt-worthy.”