I visited Hawaii (Big) Island for the first time in 2006. We landed in Kona Airport surrounded by black lava on a cloudy December day, and my first words were: “Wait a minute, where is paradise?!” This place doesn’t show off. The island does not open up readily just for anybody to adore it from the first sight. You have to explore and earn it.
Every time I come to visit this island, I feel a connection that helps me to discover and to learn a little bit more about its nature, plants, animals, people, culture, history. It’s magical. We open up to each other slowly; we watch each other changing over time. That’s why it is MY place even though I am not local or know everything there is to know about it.
Every time I am on the island, I make Hawaiian ricotta. I named it Hawaiian because I make it with the ocean water from the Ili Ili (“pebble” in Hawaiian) Beach, which is a few steps from the house we rent. For a long time, I was wondering why nobody makes curdled with ocean water cheese in Hawaii. With so many Japanese, Chinese, and Australian immigrants and travelers on the island, it could have become a signature cheese for the state of Hawaii! “In Hawaii, just pouring the stuff can make us wince. Milk is expensive here.” — explains “Living Hawaii: Where Milk Can Cost as Much as Wine” article. It is possible that only eccentric gourmet-oriented tourists [like me] can afford to make cheese here.
Acid (lactic acid, vinegar, citrus juice) and enzymes (rennet, chymosin) are well-known milk coagulants. They are used in cheesemaking for ages. The coagulant derived from the sea or ocean water is also traditional but mostly used in Asian cuisines for tofu making. In China, it is known as lushui, in Japan — as nigari. Ocean water is very salty, and it might seem that sodium chloride (salt) is responsible for curdling the milk, but the real coagulating agent is magnesium chloride. Lushui and nigari are made by removing the salt from the ocean water (preferably very clean deep water) and evaporating moisture until a pure coagulant is left. Australian and Tunisian cuisines are the only two I know that use ocean and sea water for making cow milk cheese.
It’s simple. The texture of cheese curdled with ocean water is fantastic. It is creamy-soft and, for the lack of a better word, juicy, even after straining most of the whey. I could never get the same results when making ricotta with mozzarella whey or acidic water. The ratio of salty ocean water to milk may seem scary, but this ricotta tastes surprisingly sweet with only an intriguing trace of saltiness and minerality. I suppose the unique chemical composition of ocean water, in general, is responsible for the effect, and probably it’s the Kona water in particular. No wonder, deep water near Kona is bottled and exported to Japan.