My Citizens, while the virtual family of TFD Nation is now more than 40,000+ strong, the sad truth is that the actual family of TFD is – well let’s just say we aren’t the closest-knit group you’ve ever seen. Over the decades, we have spread out all over the map from coast-to-coast and everywhere in-between – which means we only see each other once every few years, at best. Sadly, one member of our clan is even further away – my amazing cousin Stephen Levine once lived in far-off Micronesia as a practicing attorney (paradoxically, he lived in Alaska before then!) before permanently moving to Hawai’i about 30 years ago – first as a lawyer on Kauai, now working as an artist/photographer on Maui!
I have not seen my cousin for – 35 years? – but we have thankfully reconnected via Facebook and I hope to see him as soon as later this year! Growing up, when I was still very young, I remember his presence at the annual Family Passover meal – long-haired, lean and exuding cool confidence in a way that just seemed magical. I wanted to be just like him when I grew up – now that I have slid right past adulthood into middle age, I can at least say that I share his love for world travel and non-conformist attitude, if not his sophistication and savoir faire!
Here is Stephen’s bio, from his artist page here:
Stephen lost interest in art at an early age when he found out that crayons didn’t taste too good. After twenty-five as an attorney, those crayons didn’t seem so bad anymore. A gift subscription to National Geographic from a great aunt opened his eyes to a world beyond the streets of Brooklyn, where he grew up. It opened his eyes to the power and beauty of photography.
An avid backpacker and outdoors person, Stephen began taking pictures in an effort to bring the beauty of the mountains back home.
A self-taught photographer, he has lived in Alaska, Micronesia, and lived on Kauai before moving to Maui in 1997. He now lives in the shadow of Haleakala, taking most of his pictures upcountry. He chases early morning light and early blooms and late glow of the day, looking for that brief, hidden or overlooked moment of texture and color that are part of the Maui rainbow.
So – in honor of my cousin’s life journey, the next 4 recipes will all be from areas he once called home or frequented – Micronesia, Guam and Hawai’i. This first recipe is for one of the most ubiquitous condiments you’ll find on all of the Hawaiian islands – I speak of nothing less than chili pepper water!
As noted in this excerpted article from mauimagazine.net:
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.
Chili pepper water is so beloved throughout the 50th state that innumerable variations exist – not just from island to island, but household to household! Differing examples of chili pepper water recipes can be seen at a local fundraiser page I came across, where nearly a dozen different kinds were auctioned off for charity – check them all out here! Hawaiian chili peppers are actually not native to the islands, but rather to Central and South America – remember that even cuisines that liberally use chili peppers today such as Thailand and Sichuan Province, China NEVER USED THEM until the 18th century when they were brought there by Catholic missionaries!
The Hawaiian pepper is known botanically as C. frutescens – other members of the group include the Tabasco and cayenne varieties. The Capsicum peppers’ small size make them ideal snacks for birds, who do not have the same reaction to capsaicin as humans do. Hawaiian chili peppers are known to local Hawaiians as nīoi, or nīoi pepa. The plants produce an average of 100 peppers each, making them prolific growers and they are HOT – while delicious, I prefer to use a different C. frutescens pepper that has since escaped cultivation and now grows in the wild elsewhere in Polynesia. In this case, they grow wild on the island of Guam! They are known locally as ‘boonie peppers’ and have a truly unique flavor profile!
It can be very intense at first and then evens out and lingers on your tongue and lips which can last for a while (about four to seven times longer than a jalapeno). It can also cause a little numbness. There’s definitely a lot of tingling going on that gets spread throughout the mouth if you take a drink of water (or use it in chili pepper water!). Another attribute of the Boonie is that its heat can be amplified by crushing them (using a mortar and pestle or a small bowl and the back of a spoon). The heat tends to also bring out the sweetness in foods. So what hits your palate first is the heat, then sweet followed by the other flavors of the dish giving a greater depth to your flavor profiles when used correctly.
As noted in a fascinating article on foodnearsnellville.wordpress.com:
It wasn’t something I thought of much when I was on Guam. They were wild, they had been there at least since the Spanish arrived in the Marianas, they were spread.. how? A common theory is as they are pequin type peppers (e.g. bird peppers), that birds spread them from island to island.
I wrote my bachelor’s alma mater, the University of Guam, and got a couple interesting comments out of that. From a comment from Phoebe Wall to a member of the alumni group at UOG I get this:
The “boonie pepper” is definitely Capsicum frutescens. There is a lot [of] variation in types. I imagine [Food Near Snellville] is probably referring to the donne’ sali (the small one that is really pika).
and from Professor Mari Marutani (she’s the resident UOG expert on the Guam boonie) I received this reply:
Hi [Food Near Snellville],
Two hot pepper plants are known in Guam. One is “donne’sali” (C. frutescens) that is characterized to have small, bright red, and very pungent fruits. The other is “donne’ ti’au” (C. annuum), a long, red and pungent pepper. “Donne’sali” has long been harvested from the wild and “donne’ ti’au” is mainly grown in the backyard garden.
Occasionally, some farmers sell their own selected lines and wild hot peppers (‘boonie’ peppers) to the roadside vendors and local supermarkets. Since there is a great possibility of cross pollination (often by bees), this self-pollinated plant often has a genetic variations in natural environment. People of Guam know there are variation of Donne sali. For example, Mr. Cruz has one kind and Mrs. Santos has slightly different one, hotter or very PIKA.
It fascinates me that the surfing path my cousin once cut through the South Pacific is one shared by the humble chili pepper and it is especially interesting how both of them came to be forever associated with water and Polynesia alike! 🙂
So – as to how I make my version of this fantastic hot condiment – as you probably expected, my version of the recipe is more complexly-flavored that the standard ones you find at every roadside shack in Hawai’i. Not to say they’re in any way, shape or form anything less than delicious – I just happen to prefer a multi-layered flavor profile beyond just heat and vinegar. My version includes garlic, ginger, a splash of soy sauce and Worcestershire and most importantly – those Guam boonie peppers! If you want to grow these unique peppers, this source sells live plants and ships!
Feel free to substitute any suitably hot pepper that you like – habanero, jalapeño, whatever strikes your fancy! Just know that it won’t be ‘authentically Polynesian’ unless you use Hawaiian or Guam Boonie peppers! You also really should use genuine Hawaiian sea salt – this brand is legit and excellent in flavor, but if you prefer, just use Kosher salt. Lastly, I add a goodly hit of umami with some local Hawaiian ogo dried seaweed – you can leave this optional ingredient out, but I strongly prefer it.
My last change is assuredly going to be controversial amongst Hawai’i locals – but I’ll stand by it since I think it’s an optional change. Rather than just using plain old water, I prefer to use Hint® brand pineapple-flavored water instead! It fits the local theme, the flavoring is all-natural and I think it really adds some great additional flavor to the condiment – just use bottled water if you disagree with my heterodoxy and want to stay on the royal road of tradition. Regardless – my version of this Hawaiian staple will be so good, so authentic, it will have you speaking spontaneous Hawaiian – Hū ka pika o kēia kai nīoi! (Woah, this chili pepper water is spicy!). 🙂
Citizens – try this delightfully-strong condiment on pretty much anything that needs a flavor ‘wake-up call’ and while it may have the name ‘water’ in its name, trust me: you will NEED water if you over-indulge in this! Just like my cousin, chili pepper water is a transplant to the Islands that is now fully-native and adds its glory to the spirit of aloha – and my next recipe also makes use of this fiery indulgence. I speak of nothing less than the delicious Hawaiian huli huli BBQ chicken – coming to your screen shortly!
Battle on – the GeneralissimoPrint
The Hirshon Hawaiian Chili Pepper Water – Kai Nīoi
- 8 ounces Pineapple Hint Water (TFD’s preference) or bottled water
- 2 ounces white vinegar
- 1 tsp. Hawaiian sea salt – you can substitute any sea salt or kosher salt
- 8–12 Guam Boonie peppers (TFD’s preference) or Hawaiian chili peppers, lightly-crushed (not so hot) or sliced (HOT!) (you can use up to 20 of either kind of pepper, if you’re insane – you CAN also sub in other spicy chili peppers to your preference)
- 2 cloves garlic, sliced
- 2 slices washed fresh Hawaiian ginger, lightly-smashed
- Splash of soy sauce
- Splash of Worcestershire sauce
- A goodly pinch of dried ogo seaweed (optional but TFD very much likes it)
- Add the ingredients to a small pan and bring to a quick boil. Reduce the heat immediately and let it simmer for 5 minutes.
- Remove from heat, cool, then transfer to a sterilized bottle. Use as needed. The longer it sits, the more the peppers and other flavors will infuse the water/vinegar mixture – I would personally let it sit for at least a week before using. It will keep in the refrigerator for about a year or so.
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