The term Hawaiian sea salt describes both a style of salt and the land where the salt is made. All salts harvested in Hawaii are by definition Hawaiian. However, some salts that are sold as “Hawaiian” are produced elsewhere, and only through processing are made to look like traditional Hawaiian salts. Virtually all the “Hawaiian salts” sold around the world (including in Hawaii!) are based on industrial sea salts from manufacturers such as Cargil, and then passed off as authentic Hawaiian salt. True Hawaiian sea salts have vastly more minerals and a richer flavor. Of course, they also have a more personal and ecologically appealing story.
Traditionally Hawaiian sea salt is red, though today white and black varieties can also be found. The white salts, which include Papohaku Opal and Kona Deep Sea Salt, are untreated pure solar-evaporated salts. Hawaiian red salts include Haleakala Ruby, and Molokai Red. These are made by mixing white sea salt with alaea clay, a native Hawaiian volcanic clay that is rich in iron, and historically honored for its beauty, health benefits, and spiritual properties. The black salts of Hawaii are often called “volcanic” salts. The name is nice for its romantic appeal rather than its factual accuracy. In truth, even the true black Hawaiian salts, such as Kilauea Onyx, are made by combining activated charcoal sea salt to achieve their arresting color and powerful detoxifying properties.
Native Hawaiians held alaea clay to be sacred and combined it with salt for religious cleansing and healing practices. They called their coarse salt pa’akai. Some pa’akai was mixed with red alaea clay for ritual blessings, rituals, medicine, and more prosaically, for preserving fish.
Before contact with Europeans, Hawaiian households typically made their own salt by evaporating seawater. The natives quickly learned to trade their salt to European sailors, and in turn learned European techniques of digging large saltpans into Hawaii’s red, iron-rich volcanic clay for larger-scale production. This was adopted as the main salt producing technique on the islands. The most rustic red Hawaiian salts took on a salmon-red color from the red clay stirred up during the salt harvesting process.
By the 19th century, Hawaii was the chief salt supplier for the Pacific Northwest, where fisherman use Hawaiian products to salt their salmon catch, manufacturing lox that they sold across the country. Hawaiians also sold sea salt and salted meats to sailors on whalers and other merchant ships passing by.
Today, many ‘Hawaiian’ sea salts are not made this way. Instead, they’re produced by mechanically mixing a cheap, highly refined California sea salt (about 99.8% pure sodium chloride) with alaea clay from China or Hawaii. Typically the darker the red color, the higher the quality of alaea clay used to make it.
In terms of distance from other land masses, the Hawaiian Island archipelago is one of the most isolated place on earth, which means that the ocean waters of Hawaii are as pristine as any on the planet. Hawaiian saltmakers use solar evaporation technology, yielding nature’s own perfect salt crystals. The resulting salts are very clean and yet full-flavored, ultra-pure Hawaiian red salt is just 84% sodium chloride, and 16% naturally occurring elements--over 80 total, including critical ocean electrolytes and trace minerals.
Hawaiian salts are painstakingly harvested under the supervision of certified salt masters, who are members of the Salt Masters Guild of Hawaii, an association formed with the goal of reinvigorating the thousand-year tradition of salt making as practiced by the ancient Hawaiian culture. The origin of any gourmet salt is a critical factor in assessing its various qualities. Ordinary table salts—along with many specialty brands—are super-heated, processed and treated to remove impurities and pollution. However, such drastic steps also remove the very electrolytes, trace minerals and elements our bodies crave, resulting in salt that is approximately 99% sodium chloride—thus missing much of the health- and beauty-giving properties of the primordial ocean from which all life on earth arose.