Salty Business Embraces Artisan Tofu

Joseph L. Murphy

Joseph L. Murphy

Light Shaping Photography & Communications

Imagine a slow-churning conveyor belt 2,200 feet below the surface, moving mineral-rich water that has never seen the light of day. The conveyor belt or slow-moving current loops around continents starting in Greenland, churning and moving water on a journey that takes hundreds of years and circumnavigates the globe.

Melanie Kelekolio, an expert salt maker with the Kona Sea Salt (KSS) farm, doesn’t have to imagine it because the current is a short distance from their location on the Big Island of Hawaii. The farm is located on seven acres of oceanfront space on Kona Keahole Point, where owners of KSS hand harvest Hawaiian Salt from the pristine deep ocean waters of the Kona Sea.

The current, known as Thermohaline circulation, moves at a mere centimeters per hour and lies beyond the reach of the light from the sun or the environmental impacts of the surface. The secret to the nutritious and great-tasting salt KSS makes comes from the waters below. KSS is the only sea salt in the world made from pure, 900-year-old deep ocean water, rich in natural minerals, making it one of the highest-quality finishing salts in the world.

The journey of the water ends when it is drawn up to the surface in a 40-inch pipe that has been dropped 2,200 feet into the ocean half a mile offshore from KSS farm. The salt is rich in minerals like calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron, manganese, zinc, and iodine, which are retained when salt masters begin the solar evaporation process.

“We bring it directly into our evaporators, and we use the natural sun to solar evaporate our salt,” says Kelekolio, operations manager at KSS farm and Sea Salts of Hawaii. “It takes about six to eight weeks, depending on the weather and the seasons.”

Once onshore, the salt water is put into an enclosed solar evaporation system. The system is designed to dry the salt naturally using the year-round Kona sunshine.

Melanie Kelekolio, an expert salt maker with the Kona Sea Salt farm.

Tofu, a gift from the ocean

The salts and minerals drawn from the ocean have become highly sought after in the health, fitness, and culinary world, including the manufacturing of tofu.

Creating tofu, a highly valued source of protein in Asian cuisine starts with the soybean. These nutritious legumes are first transformed into silky, creamy soy milk, and from there, a coagulant is used to turn the soy milk into a solid form. Nigari is the traditional coagulant used in Japan and is the most widely used coagulant in commercial tofu making today.

“We considered the magnesium liquid sort of a byproduct,” she says. “We were really aiming for the salt, and then we learned from one of our good friends that that’s what they use to make tofu.”

KSS makes their Nigari by drawing pure, deep seawater and letting it slowly evaporate in the Kona year-round sun. Crystals form once the seawater evaporates to about 10% of its original volume. The salt and the remaining liquid contain a large amount of magnesium chloride, magnesium sulfate, and potassium chloride, and they’re considered nigari. Nigari comes from the Japanese word “Nigai,” or bitterness.

Nigari contains mainly magnesium chloride and just a tiny amount of sodium chloride. It is used to make tofu from fresh soy milk in minutes.

“The taste of our deep-sea water salt is so full flavored,” she says. “I mean, it’s almost got a sweet taste to it, and I think it’s because it’s got all the other minerals still in it. We don’t take anything out of it. And so even for the magnesium, it’s actually really pure. It really is some good stuff.”

Tofu is a highly versatile food and has multiple uses in home cooking. Tofu can be baked, smoked, marinated, and crumbled.

Soy is the only plant protein that carries the FDA’s heart health claim, confirming it may be able to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. It’s also a source of folate, potassium and fiber, and the quality of soy protein is similar to animal protein and higher than the quality of nearly all other plant proteins. Soy is a complete protein that contains all nine essential amino acids our bodies need.

Combining the Kona Sea Salt Nigari with soy has been a winning combination for KSS. A Japanese food company recently featured their product as a top-quality ingredient in tofu making. The distinction has led chefs across Asia to use the product and celebrated chefs closer to home in North America.

Sustainability and protecting the ocean

Because KSS draws their products from the sea they believe in giving back through sustainability and conservation methods.

“Every little thing we can do helps in the big picture,” Kelekolio says.

One way KSS gives back is through the support of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine Debris Project (PMDP) another is the installation of solar panels to capture the energy of the sun and power their business.

PMDP is a non-profit organization created to protect sensitive wildlife and critical habitats from the threats of marine debris. The group removes derelict fishing nets and plastics from the reefs and shorelines while working on creative solutions for recycling and re-utilization of the waste stream.

“They’re cleaning all the drift nets off of the reefs that are smothering all the coral,” Kelekolio says about the conservation efforts. “It’s home to all these different seabirds, and sadly, they’re eating a lot of the plastic.”

U.S. Soy also prides itself as a champion of sustainability. It is certified sustainable based on a national system of sustainability and conservation laws and regulations combined with careful implementation of best production practices by the nation’s 303,191 soybean farms.

The use of a renewable resource like soy makes products biobased, rather than reliant on petroleum. For example, furniture companies can use soy-based foam in furniture cushions and mattresses, providing the same quality, comfort and durability as petroleum-based foam. And because soybeans contain oil and protein components, a given amount can meet multiple needs. That means that U.S. Soy provides those biobased solutions without sacrificing vital contributions to the global food, feed and vegetable oil supply.

Whether you purchase tofu at the supermarket or make it yourself using KSS Nigari, it’s great knowing it is made with sustainable U.S. Soy. You can tour KSS farm next time you are on the Big Island Hawaii by visiting their website and you can also purchase their Nigari from their website.