Chile pep­per wa­ter,


EV­ERY RE­FRIG­ER­A­TOR IN HAWAI‘I HAS AT least one batch of chile pep­per wa­ter in it. When I was a kid, in the town of Hilo, on Hawai‘i’s Big Is­land, my dad and I would save old glass jars or cool-look­ing whiskey bot­tles for mak­ing and stor­ing our own. Around the din­ner ta­ble, my fa­ther and un­cles would take lit­tle gulps of it from a shot glass, or else sip it from a ra­men spoon in be­tween bites of the meal.

Some­where be­tween a condi­ment and a chaser, chile pep­per wa­ter can be driz­zled over food like hot sauce, but most peo­ple pre­fer to sip it along­side rich dishes, like lo­cal-style beef stew or lau lau—a steamed roll of pork or fish wrapped in taro leaves.

Chile pep­per wa­ter orig­i­nates from the na­tive Hawai­ians, or Kā­naka Maoli, who made it by blend­ing wa­ter, sea salt, and fiery in­dige­nous chiles called nioi. The salt cat­alyzes the fer­men­ta­tion, so more fla­vor de­vel­ops over time, and a jar can keep for months. Tra­di­tion­ally, na­tive cui­sine was sea­soned very sim­ply. But de­pend­ing on the is­land they dwelled on, some groups would fla­vor their wa­ters with var­i­ous sea­weeds or roasted kukui tree nuts. Later, as dif­fer­ent im­mi­grants ar­rived to work the plan­ta­tions, the list ex­panded even more: The Por­tuguese and Filipinos brought gar­lic, vine­gar, and fish sauce. The Ja­panese in­tro­duced soy sauce. Each fam­ily on Hawai‘i would blend to­gether these in­gre­di­ents in their own way, which is how chile pep­per wa­ter came to re­flect the is­land’s many cul­tures and tra­di­tions.

At my restau­rant Lin­eage on Maui, we serve chile pep­per wa­ter in small flasks at each ta­ble, which the guests get to take home. We’re also plan­ning to bar­rel-fer­ment and bot­tle some to sell. When fam­ily or friends visit my home, they still some­times bring a bot­tle of their own to share, of­ten made with pep­pers from their back­yard.

My dad has been known to have up to 12 dif­fer­ent kinds lined up in mis­matched bot­tles his fridge, all with slightly dif­fer­ent hues. One or more al­ways gets passed around the ta­ble at ev­ery meal. And when a bot­tle is al­most empty, some­one will add some new chiles to what’s left over, which help kick-start the fer­men­ta­tion. Just like that, a new batch be­gins.

For two unique recipes for Hawai­ian chile pep­per wa­ter, see “Chile Wa­ter Two Ways,” p. 104.

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