Savoring the Burn

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Story by Teri Freitas Gorman | Photo by John Giordani

chili pepper waterFor me, chili pepper water will forever be linked to college summer breaks. After months of boring mainland food, coming home meant a quick family reunion at OGG, followed by the obligatory stop at the now long-gone Aloha Restaurant on Pu‘unēnē Avenue in Kahului.

It was a no-frills concrete-block restaurant with noisy, leaky window air conditioners that almost cooled the drab dining room. Simple Formica tables offered up the holy trinity of local-style condiments: shoyu, Hawaiian salt and “chili peppa watah.” A bowl of fresh poi, a steaming laulau and chunks of raw Kula onions sprinkled with this fiery elixir was a mouthful of ‘ono spicy bliss. Ah, the comforting flavors of home.

Locals splash chili pepper water on just about anything, but the origin of this ubiquitous Hawai‘i condiment remains a mystery. It is believed the Spanish agriculturalist Don Francisco Paula de Marin introduced chili peppers to Hawai‘i during the early 1800s. Native Hawaiians named them nīoi and mixed them with water to treat skin conditions. Later, Portuguese immigrants used them in island versions of their piri piri sauce, and Japanese pickled vegetables got kicked up a notch with them. Like so many of Hawai‘i’s culinary treasures, chili pepper water is a multicultural collaboration.

Similar to Thai or bird’s eye chili, nīoi are small, bullet-shaped capsules of fire that turn bright red when ripe. And they are hot. They score 50,000 to 70,000 on the Scoville Heat Unit scale (by comparison, a jalapeño rates a wimpy 2,500 to 10,000 SHU).

Family recipes for chili pepper water range from “supah easy” (mix water and chopped Hawaiian chili) to complex (put salt, vinegar, garlic and fresh smashed chili into a sterilized jar, add boiling water, mix with a wooden chopstick and allow to mature at room temperature for forty-eight hours). Regardless of the recipe, “chili peppa watah” makes everything taste better, especially college summer breaks on Maui.

Build Your Own Fire

Recipe courtesy of MNKO dining editor Becky Speere

  • 8 oz. water
  • 2 oz. white vinegar
  • 1 tsp. Hawaiian rock salt, ‘alaea salt, or kosher salt
  • 1 clove garlic, smashed
  • 1–3 fresh red chili peppers, preferably Hawaiian (hot)

Boil water. Cool. In a clean glass jar or bottle, add water, vinegar, garlic, salt and chili pepper. Cover and let sit two days in a cool place before using. Store in refrigerator.


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