Exploring the celebrated seasoning’s many facets of taste and color

Describe the taste of salt. Quick. OK, “salty.” What else?

Salty is one of the five primary taste sensations (along with sweet, bitter, sour and umami), so like a primary color, it stands as a description on its own. But for today’s gourmet salts, more words are necessary. These salts offer varied taste profiles for the discerning palate – smoky, zesty, sweet, etc. – but chief among descriptors are the words “clean” and “pure.”

Fancy sea salts from Europe, with names like Fleur de Sel and Celtic Gray, are renowned for their purity. Unlike common table salt, which comes from salt mines and is refined down to pure sodium chloride with most trace minerals removed, natural sea salts are harvested from seawater, allowed to dry naturally and minimally processed. This, according to salt distributors, retains trace minerals such as iron, magnesium, calcium, potassium, manganese, zinc, phosphorus and iodine, all of which bring certain health and flavor properties to the salt.

In Hawaii, we’ve long had our own version, called generically “Hawaiian salt,” which we bought in bags to rub into our salted salmon and kalua pork. The concept has gone upscale in the last few years, with producers focusing on the cleanest seawater and advanced evaporating techniques. They’re available not just in plain white, but also red, pink, black and green.

Since 2005, Hawaii Kai Corp. has been taking Hawaii’s sea salt international, from a plant on Molokai that CEO George Joseph says takes pure, clean water and protects it during the drying process from airborne pollutants. Sprinkle a little on a simple barbecued salmon, Joseph says, and “you will see the difference in taste.”

Hawaii Kai salts (often sold under the name Palm Island), are available at Whole Foods, Marukai and Down to Earth stores or through www.amazon.com. Other brands of Hawaiian sea salts are sold in many specialty food stores and through online sites such as www.saltworks.us.

White Sea Salt

These snowy white grains make for a good general purpose salt that can be used in lieu of table salt. It’s known for a bright, clean taste that can be used in small amounts to bring out the flavors in prepared dishes of all types, from raw salads to barbecued meats.

Mera Pharmaceuticals has introduced a new white salt, Kona Sea Salt, refined from seawater drawn from 2,000 feet deep off the coast of the Big Island. Mera maintains that water from that depth is protected from contamination and pollution, giving the salt a clean, pure taste. It also contains 1/3 less sodium and more potassium and trace minerals than table salt, the company says. Kona Sea Salt is the only salt carried by GNC stores on Oahu.

Alaea Sea Salt

This salt was traditionally harvested from tidepools on Kauai that also contained natural alaea, or volcanic red clay. Today, white sea salt is mixed with alaea, which turns the salt pink or red and adds iron oxide. Many people find it more subtle than white sea salt. It’s a natural for Hawaiian foods such as kalua pork, lomi salmon and poke. It also can be used in cooking most meats, vegetables and hearty fish such as salmon.

Black Salt

White salt is combined with activated charcoal, which has long been valued as a natural healing agent. Hawaii Kai’s Black Lava is a dark, dramatic-looking salt with a deep flavor suited to tomato-based dishes and steaks.

Green Salt

Made with a bamboo leaf extract, Hawaii Kai’s Bamboo Jade is reminiscent of green olivine gemstones. The bamboo is said to add amino acids, antioxidants and vitamins. It is recommended for Asian-style dishes.

Himalayan Salt

Mined in Pakistan and Nepal, this salt is noted in the culinary industry and by natural health professionals as well. Himalayan pink salt gets its color from the minerals it contains, including potassium, iron and magnesium. It is often found in the form of large crystal chunks, which require a special salt shaver or grater to hew into usable bits for cooking and seasoning.