From Wave to Table: Worth their Salt

Hawaii Kai Corp.’s four varieties of salt.

Photo: Courtesy of Hawaii Kai Corp.

Salt is simple, says Molokai-based salt maker Cameron Hiro. It requires little—only seawater, sun and time. Yet, for such a small, elemental thing, salt has, for centuries, been of tremendous value. Ancient Hawaiians considered paakai sacred, using it for medicinal purposes and to preserve and enhance the flavors of food. Today, chefs and foodies alike rely on salt to make the flavors of their dishes sing.

There are four common varieties of salt: iodized table salt, kosher salt, sea salt and fleur de sel, a type of sea salt. In recent years, there has been renewed interest in the craft of harvesting Hawaiian sea salts, and bags of the pure, white (and sometimes red and black) crystals have been showing up on grocers’ shelves. Leading the pack was Hawaii Kai Corp.’s Molokai-made sea salts. Hawaii Kai Corp. was founded in 2003 by Kent Clampitt, an entrepreneur and process engineer who got hooked on Molokai’s pure salt while vacationing there with his wife. Clampitt built the company from the shore up, hiring Cameron Hiro, who was born and raised on Molokai, as his operations manager and salt master.

“My background is in the food-service industry,” says Hiro, who attended college on the Big Island and moved back to Molokai in 1993. “I moved onto a 35-acre parcel on homestead land but I didn’t see myself as a regular farmer. But I thought, ‘salt farming, hmm, what’s that all about?’” Clampitt eventually sold his shares, though he remains a consultant, and current president and CEO George Joseph bought Hawaii Kai Corp. in 2008.

Salt expert Cameron Hiro, with his wife, Jacque Hiro.

Photo: Courtesy of Hawaii Kai Corp.

Hawaii Kai Corp. may be making an ancient product, but the process is certainly 21st century. First, the company draws ocean water from off Molokai’s coast and then, using a series of filters, purifies the water to FDA bottled-water standards, so it’s left with pure ocean water that retains its natural salt levels. The water is processed through a reverse-osmosis system, which increases the salinity of the water. Then, using heat absorbed via a proprietary solar sealed reduction unit, the salinity level is again increased, this time to six times that of its normal state, and the water is filtered once more.

The final outcome is sort of like water on salt steroids, which makes the evaporation process easier and, because it requires less energy and time, more efficient. The water is transferred to the salt farm, where Hiro finishes the evaporation process.

Depending on the weather, it takes three to five weeks for the wet salt to form. When it’s ready, Hiro collects it by hand and separates the salt from any remaining liquid. The result is chunks of smooth, snowlike whole salt that Joseph says has been compared to fleur de sel, considered the crème de la creme of salt by many chefs.

Hawaii Kai Corp.’s Molokai salt farm.

Photo: Courtesy of Hawaii Kai Corp.

Hawaii Kai Corp. sells four lines of salt: Soul of the Sea, Palm Island Premium, Hawaii Kai Gourmet and Molokai Gourmet. Each line is created using different formulations to yield subtle differences in taste and texture. All four brands offer white, red, green and black salts, each with its own distinct flavor. The white is the original form of the salt and is the base for all other varietals. Red salt is made by bonding alaea, a red clay that is believed to have been used by ancient Hawaiians in a purification ritual called hiuwai, to the white salt, resulting in a slightly pinkish varietal (it’s a favorite of Martha Stewart’s). Due to its milder flavor, the red salt pairs well with kālua pork and all types of fish, particularly grilled salmon, and is the most popular salt. The green salts contain organic bamboo-leaf extract and meld well with Asian dishes. The second most popular salt is black, which is the result of charcoal, an antitoxin and digestive aid, mixed with the white salt. Chef George Mavrothalassitis, a man who definitely knows his salt, likes to pair Hawaii Kai’s black salt with chocolate because the smokiness of the salt enhances the chocolate’s rich aromas and flavors.

Hawaii Kai Corp. is experimenting with different salt blends using other locally grown products, including a Maui onion salt, and is hoping to continue the proud tradition of salt making in Hawaii. “Salt has a long history, and we are making some of the best salts in the whole world,” says Joseph.

Hawaii Kai Corp.’s Molokai salt farm.

Photo: Courtesy of Hawaii Kai Corp.

Grilled pineapple with Hawaii Kai black sea-salt topping

    1/4    cup honey
    1/4    cup fresh lime juice
    1    tablespoon grated lime peel
    2    tablespoons orange juice
    1    large, ripe pineapple
Pinch Hawaii Kai black sea salt
    1/4    cup minced fresh mint

Whisk the first four ingredients in a large glass dish. Peel pineapple, cut crosswise into eight rounds. Remove core from each slice, discard. Add pineapple to dish, turn and coat. Cover with plastic wrap; let stand for at least an hour. Preheat grill to medium heat. Remove pineapple, reserving marinade. Grill until golden brown, about three minutes per side. Transfer to serving dish. Pour reserved marinade over grilled pineapple and sprinkle with mint. Top with Hawaii Kai black sea salt.