Story by Dave Choo
Photos by Matt Mallams
A little more than three years ago, Tim and Summer Parsons planted a handful of jalapeños in their backyard, part of a lesson in organic gardening for their three kids. The family lives on a half-acre of ag land in Kihei, home to a couple of massive mango trees, a chicken coop and a goat named Billy, so Gardening 101 was likely to be an easy A for the Parsons kids. Even so, what happened surprised everyone. It might have been the all-natural fertilizer provided by the dozen or so chickens or the worms in the family’s worm farm, or maybe it was Kihei’s abundant sunshine. Whatever the reason, the jalapeños went ballistic.
“We ended up with thousands of peppers, so I chopped them up, made a sauce and poured it into old shoyu bottles,” says Tim. “I took it to parties and people loved it. Pretty soon I had to start buying peppers from other farmers to meet the demand.”
The Maui-born-and-raised graphic designer tested the market at local swap meets and sent samples to food people. The response was overwhelmingly positive, so he took the plunge and named his company Adoboloco, after an adobo recipe blog he’d started years before. He created new sauces made with Hawaiian and Thai chili peppers, habaneros, incendiary ghost peppers and the volcanic Trinidad Moruga Scorpion pepper, the world’s hottest. His simple recipe (apple cider vinegar, sea salt, garlic and chilies) has earned Adoboloco a devoted following. Mainlanders appreciate Tim’s insistence on using only organic and locally sourced ingredients. Old-school locals like Adoboloco’s flavor profile— it’s similar to Hawaiian chili pepper water, a condiment that was once as omnipresent on Island tables as salt and pepper. Like chili pepper water, Adoboloco sauces are tart with plenty of heat, but the burn dissipates quickly, yielding to the flavor of the food. “It’s all about enhancing flavors,” says Summer, “not overwhelming them.”
I tour the Parsons’ pepper garden on a sunny October morning. Earlier I had met the family for breakfast at a nearby restaurant where I sampled several Adoboloco sauces over one of my favorite hot saucecompatible foods, corned beef hash with over-easy eggs. I really wanted to try their Hawaiian sauce, but the restaurant was out of it. Tim says that there’s a perennial shortage of Hawaiian sauce because there is a perennial shortage of its main ingredient: the Hawaiian chili pepper, a tiny dynamo growing in kitchen gardens and even wild throughout the Islands.
Tim’s trying to make up for the shortage by breeding his Hawaiian chili pepper plants to grow larger chilies. He’s been propagating seed from the largest chilies; those plants are now producing chilies that are about two and a half inches long, substantially larger than a standard Hawaiian chili. It’s his first crop and it’s not ripe, so he doesn’t yet know whether a bigger fruit comes at the expense of flavor or heat. As it stands, though, the Parsons’ backyard garden can’t keep up with the business, so Tim’s moved his chili growing operations to nearby Waihe‘e. He’s also working with a Big Island farmer to meet his pepper needs — all except for the Hawaiian chilies, which he’ll have to grow himself.
“No one grows them on a large scale that I know of,” says Tim. “They’re small so the labor costs are high. If you’re using a few for cooking, you don’t mind paying a premium price. But if you’re using them commercially, it can get expensive very fast.” According to Tim, it’s the high price —not changing tastes — that has led to the disappearance of chili pepper water from local cuisine. But if his jumbo pepper packs a strong enough punch, he’ll send the seeds over to his grower on the Big Island, and just maybe a much-loved Island flavor will be reborn. As hot as his sauces can be, his Hawaiian sauce is more about honoring tradition than blowing off heads.
“In Hawai‘i it’s more than just heat,” says Tim, cradling one of his oversize beauties. “It’s about the food. It’s always been about the food.”