I could tell you about the killer coconut ice cream I discovered on Maui’s Road to Hāna—or the sugar-crusted banana bread, hand-blended orange chocolate, freshly-caught fish, or variety of lilikoi (AKA passionfruit)-spiked foods devoured during my recent long weekend on the island. But instead, I’m writing a love note to a far less Instagrammable Hawaiian food: chili pepper water.
I’ll be honest—as someone with a pathetically low spicy-food tolerance, I almost turned down my first taste of chili pepper water when it was offered to me as part of an egg-and-veggie breakfast at the Travaasa Hāna experiential resort. Yes, I was rejecting it for its name alone. (Pepper water? No thanks.) But I’ll be forever grateful for the waitress who insisted I give it a chance, because she’s essentially the matchmaker who set me up with my condiment soulmate.
Chili pepper water contains a lot of the same ingredients as sriracha—chili peppers, garlic, vinegar, water, salt—but is much lower in sugar. This is helpful if, like me, your vacation meal plan already involves a lot of sugar. (See the aforementioned coconut ice cream, banana bread, chocolate, and lilikoi everything.) It also looks a lot different than its distant hot sauce cousin. Whereas sriracha is fire-engine red and fairly opaque, chili pepper water is quite literally water infused with its various ingredients. This makes it a lot less spicy than sriracha, but still with the same ability to make just about every meal taste a million times better.
James Watts, executive chef at Travaasa Hāna, concurs. “People put it on everything—poke, kalua pork, seared steaks off the BBQ, raw fish seasoned with just chili water and sea salt,” he says. “[You’ll see] guys fishing at the beach and taking shots of chili water with their beer.” I personally couldn’t get enough of it atop a simple breakfast of over-easy eggs, rice, steamed purple sweet potatoes, and sautéed spinach.
Watts says the exact origins of chili pepper water are a bit of a mystery, but as Maui Magazine reports, the condiment has gone through a variety of iterations since it first became popular in Hawaii in the 1800s. “The type of vinegar and the amount used make a big change in the flavor,” he explains. “Some put raw ginger, others don’t. I make mine with onion, black peppercorns, coriander seed, mustard seed, and apple cider vinegar.” The result, says the former North Carolina resident, tastes similar to “traditional Carolina BBQ.”
Since I returned to the mainland, I’ve been pining for chili pepper water nonstop—seriously, guys, I’ve got it bad. Luckily for me (and for all of you reading this), the hot sauce is super easy to DIY at home. Keep reading for Watts’ variation on the traditional recipe and prepare to fall in love at first bite.
Travaasa Hāna chef James Watts’ chili pepper water recipe
1/2 cup sliced yellow onion
4 chopped garlic cloves (about 2.5 Tbsp)
3 chopped Hawaiian chili peppers or birds eye chilis (Option to substitute 1 deseeded jalapeño if needed)
1 Tbsp black peppercorn
1 Tbsp coriander seed
1 Tbsp mustard seed
1 Tbsp sea salt
2 cups water
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1 tsp sugar
1. Sweat yellow onion with chopped garlic cloves until soft.
2. Add chili peppers, spices, and salt.
3. Sauté until fragrant and add water and apple cider vinegar. Bring to a simmer.
4. Remove from heat and add sugar.
5. Either blend on high, which is Hāna style, or leave it unblended and pour into a salad dressing bottle with a small hole that will allow the water-vinegar to be strained away from the additional ingredients upon application.
6. Let the mixture cool to room temperature and then refrigerate for 2 days to let the flavors marry completely before using.
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