When I went to Hawaii in May, many things were as I expected. The beaches? Insanely gorgeous. The surfers? Very much into surfing. What can I say—I was a tourist who had only been to Hawaii as a 6-year-old, so my expectations very much revolved around beaches and surfing. But even though I was well prepared beforehands to seek out the treasures of Hawaiian cuisine—poke and spam musubi high up on the list—what I ended up raving about was a deceptively simple condiment. Chili pepper water is the Hawaiian answer to hot sauce, and you have no idea how much you need it in your life until you try it.
There isn't much to chili pepper water. It is what it sounds like: Take Hawaiian chili peppers, boil some water, and put the peppers in there with vinegar and some salt. It sounds like it wouldn't amount to much, but trust me when I say that this is a hot sauce par excellence. Recipes vary in spiciness, but what's wonderful about chili pepper water is its viscosity. Most hot sauces have some kind of heft to them, ranging from the mustard-like flow of rooster Sriracha to the watery consistency of my beloved Crystal. But chili pepper water, as you might expect, has the viscosity of water. That means it's just perfect for splashing into bowls—there's no mixing, or worrying about even distribution. The first time I had chili pepper water, at Helena's in Honolulu, I had it splashed over a bowl of poi. It immediately became obviously how useful this big-bodied, easy hot sauce would be for similar applications: to pasta or oatmeal or grits.
Though most places I went had their own chili pepper water in house, I picked up a bottle at Red Barn Farmstand. I'm almost at the end of it now, but thankfully the good folks behind Red Barn were generous enough to share their recipes, so I can make it at home. And you can (and should) too.
Note: Chili peppers vary in size and heat. Our recipe is fairly hot, and very garlicky and vinegary. Feel free to adjust the amount of peppers, garlic and vinegar to taste.
10 Hawaiian chili peppers (you can use Thai or bird's eye peppers if Hawaiian peppers aren't available
4 garlic cloves
2 tablespoons salt (Hawaiian if you have it)
2 cups water
1 cup white vinegar
How to Make It
Put peppers and garlic in a food processor and chop. Stop before you get to the paste stage—you want the chili pepper to be finely minced and the garlic to be in larger chunks.
Combine mixture with salt, water and vinegar in a large pot. Cover with a lid, bring to a boil, then remove from heat.
Allow to cool. Store in clean glass jar or bottle and allow to "marinate" for 2 to 3 days in sunlight, shaking daily. Store in refrigerator to preserve flavor and color.