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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, April 16, 2003

Chili pepper water a homemade specialty

By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor

Chili pepper water can be bought in stores, but many folks have their own recipes.

Gregory Yamamoto • The Honolulu Advertiser

Reader Galen Kitamura e-mailed the Taste section to ask for a recipe for chili pepper water (chili peppa watah in pidgin).

This request is interesting because chili pepper water is one of those staples that we take for granted until the person in the family who generally made the stuff passes on — Grandpa's pickled onions, Mama's kim chee, Auntie's takuwan. How did they do that, again?

Of course, you can buy chili pepper water in stores and sometimes at farmer's markets and craft fairs, but it's easy to make at home if you've got access to the peppers. It's also a useful and inexpensive holiday gift. And there are many different recipes, offering a range of flavors.

Chili pepper water is splashed around like shoyu or ketchup — on plate lunches, entrees, vegetables, salads, everything but fruit or dessert.

The peppers traditional used for chili pepper water are the so-called Hawaiian chilis, which are pungent and hot, skinny, tapering peppers 2 to 2 1/2 inches long, bright red when ripe. Thai bird peppers, serranos or jalape–os can be substituted. Peppers are called nioi in Hawaiian and are said to have been brought to Hawai'i by Don Francisco de Paul Marin.

How chili pepper water became a common condiment on Hawai'i tables is not clear. Portuguese have a tradition of pickling vegetables in hot vinegar water, but so do other western societies, and, in different ways, Japanese. Certainly it has appeal across the multicultural board.

Although you can make chili pepper water with just that — water and chilis, most recipes call for salt or a splash of vinegar. Some are true pickling mixtures of equal parts water and vinegar. And garlic, ginger and other ingredients find their way into some recipes. Commercial varieties are generally on the simple side and may contain food coloring or stabilizing ingredients to keep the product from becoming cloudy. The cloudiness, by the way, although not pretty, does not indicate spoilage.

However you make it, chili pepper water should be packed in sterilized jars. First, select a well-made jar with no cracks in it. Boil a deep pot of water; using tongs, carefully lower jar or jars into boiling water and turn off heat. Allow to sit 10 minutes or so. Remove, drain and fill with hot chili pepper water.

This recipe is from Rachel Lauden's excellent 1996 book "The Foods of Paradise," (UH Press, paper, $24.95).

Chili Pepper Water I

  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon vinegar
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed
  • 6 small hot red chili peppers

Bring 2 cups water to a boil. Place salt, vinegar, garlic and chilies in bottle. Pour the water into the bottle. Stir with a chopstick and leave for a couple of days to mature.

You can store chili pepper water on the counter for brief periods of time, but refrigerate it for the long term, just to be on the safe side.

This recipe is the one Alan Wong used at Canoe House at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows and it's included in Janice Wald Henderson's classic book about Hawai'i Regional Cuisine chefs, "The New Cuisine of Hawai'i," now out of print. This Asian version of chili pepper water was created by Charles Park, then general manager of the hotel.

Chili Pepper Water II

  • 1/3 cup cold water
  • 1/2 small garlic clove
  • 2 small hot red chili peppers
  • 1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar
  • 2 teaspoon peeled, minced fresh ginger
  • 1/8 teaspoon Hawaiian or kosher salt
  • 1 1/4 cups water

Puree the first 6 ingredients in a blender. Bring 1 1/4 cups of water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add the puree and return to a boil. Cool. Transfer to a glass jar and refrigerate. Keeps indefinitely.