Sampling pa‘akai at the source.
After a few minutes inspecting fleur de sel salt flakes inside a sunbaked hothouse at Keahole Point, the westernmost point of Hawaii Island, I find delicious relief from a water fountain outside. Its gentle stream of deep seawater, drawn from a depth of 2,200 feet just a few hundred yards offshore, runs about 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
“Dip your wrist in it for 10 seconds and then put it on your neck to cool down,” advises Ipo Morgan, who is leading my small-group tour at Kona Sea Salt Farm. “You can also taste it—it’s not that salty.”
Nor is the brilliant white salt this water produces, with just 70 percent of the sodium of traditional table salt, according to Morgan. The water originates from glacial melt in Greenland that sinks and then slowly travels to the Kona coast via a “major conveyor belt of a current,” she says. “It’s like in ‘Finding Nemo’ when Nemo says, ‘I gotta go,’ but it doesn’t take a couple of days to get here—it takes 900 years.”
Hawaiians have put a high value on pa‘akai (“solidified sea”), or sea salt, for centuries. Polynesian voyagers who used it to preserve and season their rations would have found salt crystallizing in shallow areas of these rocky shores when they landed in 400 A.D., or earlier.
“The winter surges in particular bring waves that create pools of water on the rocks, and a month later there’s a deep layer of sea salt,” Morgan says. “We used to harvest it, but not as much today due to air pollution, land pollution, and microplastics in the ocean water.”
Nevertheless, Hawaiians continue to revere sea salt for its use as seasoning, as a remedy for a variety of ailments, and as a ceremonial source of blessing and purification. Melanie Kelekolio, Kona Sea Salt Farm’s chief salt maker, recalls growing up in South Kona in the 1970s and ‘80s with “uncle and aunties who would go and harvest the salt and would keep it separate from regular table salt.”
When a 7-year-old Kelekolio sliced her finger from the base to the tip during a beach outing, her parents took her home, boiled water, and added sea salt. “As sore as it was, I had to stick my finger in warmish-hot water and keep it in there. That was our way of cleaning it out and starting the healing process,” Kelekolio says.
Her family also reserved sea salt to sprinkle on pork destined for the imu, or underground oven, on black ‘a‘ama crab, and “a lot of the raw dishes.” At the end of my 45-minute salt farm tour, we got to try snowy white salt and a rainbow of flavored blends—Kelekolio says her favorites are garlic and lemon rosemary—sprinkled on small slices of cucumber, cherry tomatoes, and pineapple.
A picnic area at the Kona Sea Salt Farm Ijfke Ridgley
The farm’s hothouse is a prototype of a system that will eventually replace fan-cooled evaporating tunnels currently producing 32 tons of salt a year. Initially a side project of a company that produced astaxanthin, a popular anti-inflammatory supplement, salt harvesting became a full-time endeavor here in 2005. Acquired by Sea Salts of Hawaii founder Sandra Gibson in mid-2020, when it was on the brink of shutting down, the Kona Sea Salt Farm is the only source of deep sea Hawaiian salt and, along with Hawaii Kai on Molokai, is one of only two companies selling “Hawaiian salt” that actually comes from evaporated Hawaiian sea water, she notes.
“We thought it would be a real loss to Hawaii if that farm shut down,” says Gibson, who says she started her Honolulu-based company in 2012 after being introduced to the culturally prized tradition of salt making on Kauai years before.
Dayne Tanabe, chef of restaurants at Hilton Waikoloa Village for 18 years before becoming a private and pop-up chef in 2020, praises the “pure, clean flavor” of Kelekolio’s unadulterated sea salt as well as its resonance in local culture.
“Having a local small business harvesting pristine water to make fresh salts and flavored salts is a blessing for me as a chef,” he says. “Not only does it allow me to season my food with good flaky salt, but I also get to support a small local business and tell a story about it through my food that I cook for my clients.”
Thanks to the farm, guests like myself can now experience this salt right at the source.