Salt Production An Ancient Tradition Continues On Kauai

The Hawaiian Culture For Salt Production

On Kauai, the Hawaiians of the Hanapepe Valley were the masters of salt production in ancient times. Today their ancestors are working the salt ponds and honoring this tradition that dates back to 500 AD. Most visitors to the area are unaware that quietly and without fanfare this practice continues adjacent to the beautiful crescent shaped beach they are lying upon at Salt Pond Beach Park.

The Hanapepe Hawaiians would like it to remain that way. Perhaps it was an age old mistrust of outsiders that they have jealously guarded their craft and shared with only family members.  However my friend Glenn, who farms a family plot, laughingly says that in pre-contact days the Hanapepe Valley Hawaiians held the secret of  salt production, and they would not divulge their practices to members within their own geographic area. Old habits die hard.

salt production in kauai goes back thousands of years

Hawaiian Salt Ponds in Hanapepe

It’s easy to see why. Up until the early 20th century food preservation consisted primarily of sun drying fish and meat. In the winter or wet season when there was limited sunshine preventing preservation, food spoilage was problematic. Hence, pa’akai or salt was prized as a preservative, spice, and was important medicinally to the ancient Hawaiians. No wonder that these Hanapepe artisans were highly respected for their craft.

Hawaiians from areas within their own ahupua’a or geographic area were known to exchange goods from the mauka or mountain areas to use in ‘gifting’ for the precious salt from the makai or coastal portion of the same land area. An ahupua’a was a unique system of land division that a family was a member. Unlike a village consisting of residences clustered close to one another, which is still common in other areas of the Pacific. Pre-contact Hawaiians tended to set up residences at a distance from one another within their ahupua’a.

While a member of an ahupua’a could access from the top of the mountain to the Ocean fronting that particular valley or valleys. The distances often made it inefficient for coastal members to venture high in the mountains for needed necessities that could be brought to them by the mauka members of the ahupua’a. It enabled residents to share the bounty of their respective areas of the ahupua’a, and it worked well. The makai Hawaiians required materials to make fishing nets that could only be harvested from trees high in the mountains, and the mauka Hawaiians needed the pa’akai to improve a relatively bland diet.

Salt production in hanapepe kauai was used to trade for goods from other areas of the islands

Salt Crystal Formation in Hanapepe

Salt production is only possible in the summer because the balance of the year the salt flat is underwater. There are some misconceptions about salt farming. A great many people believe that the Hawaiians would use an ‘auwai or ditch to convey seawater, flooding the area and  waiting for the water to evaporate to harvest the salt crystals. However, it is a more exacting and time consuming process.

most visitors never see the hanapepe salt pond when they go salt pond park to swim but an ancient tradition continues

Salt Formation in the Last Stage Before Harvest

Each new season the pans need to be reshaped. They are approximately 8 inches deep and can range in length from 6 – 10 feet in size. The silt is removed and the bottom of the pond is “polished.” This action requires the farmer to use a small flat pohaku or stone and rub the bottom of the salt pan. This action will close off the soil pores preventing water seepage and then the bottoms are allowed to bake in the sun for a few hours to develop a crust. Some of the extra heavy clay brought up from the bottom is used to create berms around the salt pan.

In the first photo, you can see to the left a pond that is important to the process of salt production. It is the only body of water in the photo without visible salt crystals and it is called the secondary pond. This pond, perhaps 2-4 feet deep is the main supply for the 6-8 salt pans. Each family plot has their own ‘deep well’ that is the foundation of the process, it is in the same photo behind the secondary pond . Water from this deep well is never used to replenish the salt pans directly, for the salinity levels are relatively low. Its purpose is to supply the secondary well which has a higher concentration of salinity. The farmer is mindful of the salt concentrations in the secondary pond and adds water sparingly from the primary well. There is little salt crystal formation because of the depth of the secondary pond but the slurry is quite saline. From this pond the farmer will replenish water daily into the salt pans, approximately 1-2 inches of water depending upon daily evaporation rates.On sunny, windy days there will be a greater build up of salt crystals in the flats and he will add more water.

The harvest is an early morning family affair before the Hawaiian sun becomes too fierce. Small mesh nets typically used for catching bait fish along the shoreline are attached to bamboo poles about 6 feet in length. The crystals are raked and transferred into Pandanus woven baskets and allowed to drain into large buckets where the highly saline water is captured and returned to the secondary pond. The fortnightly yield is typically 2-4  five gallon buckets per family plot.

With the advent of refrigeration the harvested salt is rarely used to preserve fish and meat. It is primarily used as a flavor enhancement, with the red clay from the salt pan offering a unique culinary treat. If you have a chance to try the grainy slightly reddish tinged salt try to distinguish the earthy nuance that it brings to the salt.

Do you have an experience from the Hanapepe Salt Pond Park to share?

About Joe Sylvester

Aloha! I have lived on Kauai for 33 years where I have worked as an Agronomist for 17 years, owned an art gallery for 11 years and own a vacation rental for 17 years in the town of Poipu. I am a former Peace Corps volunteer and have been married since 1985.
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  1. Joe, what a great story on the ancient salt production located on Kauai. We bought a bag of this salt on our last visit to the island. It is so flavorful on fish on the grill. Kauai is filled with amazingly unique places to visit along with the learnings of Hawaiian practices and traditions. It is our favorite island to visit and always see or learn something new! Thanks for sharing.

  2. I have lived here 30+ yrs and this was great info. thanks

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