The Tropic of Capsicum
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.”
“You want Hawaiian chilies? Go down to Chinatown on a weekend or any Asian market. Got choke chilies there,” says Theodore Radovich, a devoted chili-eater and University of Hawai‘i at Manoa botanist who was born and raised in Hawai‘i. Radovich is heading a state Department of Agriculture-funded study of chili peppers grown in the Islands, including the Hawaiian chili. Surprisingly little is known about this resilient but finicky plant, the fruit of which can vary in flavor and pungency (i.e., spiciness) from one growing season to the next. Last summer Radovich’s team started growing chili plants under controlled conditions on Moloka‘i and O‘ahu. When I visit his lab in early November, he’s testing the first crop for size, color, sugar, vitamin C levels and, of course, heat.
Like most chilies found in the Pacific and Asia, the Hawaiian chili was likely introduced to the Islands by Portuguese or Spanish traders, who discovered it in their conquest of the New World. The Hawaiian chili, also known as the bird or bird’s eye chili, is the largest and hottest variety of Capsicum frutescens, a species that also includes the Thai and Tabasco chilies. There are two other important species, C. annuum, with varieties like jalapeño and cayenne, and C. chinense, which includes habaneros, Scotch bonnets and the infamous bhot jolokia, or ghost chili.
Peppers get their heat from capsaicin, a chemical the plant produces to deter insects. Heat levels are measured in Scoville heat units, or SHUs, which indicate how many parts of a sugar and water solution must be added to a dried pepper to neutralize its heat. Jalapeños average between 3,500 to 8,000 SHUs, Hawaiian chilies reach more than 100,000 SHUs while habaneros can top out at more than 300,000. At over 1,000,000 SHUs the ghost chili was long thought the world’s hottest, but in 2012 The Guinness Book of World Records appointed the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion as the new king of pain, with more than 2,000,000 SHUs. Pure capsaicin, for comparison’s sake, rates a thermonuclear 16,000,000 SHUs.
Radovich introduces me to JP Bingham, an assistant professor at UH Manoa’s Department of Molecular Bioscience and Bioengineering. He’s an expert on mollusks and their toxins and has done some groundbreaking work on using those poisons to relieve pain. Bingham doesn’t know much about plants, but his mass spectrometer can quickly analyze a substance’s chemical composition. Today he’s measuring the capsaicin levels of Hawaiian chilies at various stages of ripeness. Archana Pant, a postdoctoral researcher, is gingerly grinding up chilies and placing them in glass vials.
“We work with toxins all the time, and I can honestly say that we handle chilies more carefully than we do those poisons,” says Bingham. “You usually have to ingest or inject a poison for it to do harm, but with chilies all you need to do is get a little of that juice on you and it’s over.” Bingham explains that capsaicin is easily absorbed into the skin and is not water-soluble, so it’s hard to wash off. It tricks nerves into thinking that they’ve come into contact with something hot, setting off the body’s fire alarms. Repeated exposure to high levels of capsaicin deadens the tongue’s receptors—basically it kills the taste buds —so people who eat a lot of spicy food can handle more capsaicin. To feel the same level of heat, the pepper fan must eat ever-larger doses of capsaicin. That’s in part what’s driving the hot sauce market’s quest for hotter and hotter chilies. The damage can be reversed, though; taste buds can “reset.” Pant herself is from Nepal, a chili-loving country. She gave up chilies when she got pregnant and was later upset to discover that she’d lost her tolerance. Several years and many chilies later, though, she’s back on the hot sauce.
Radovich’s research aims to boost the Hawaiian chili’s commercial viability. For now it’s a specialty crop grown mostly by Southeast Asian small farmers, who also cultivate a few Hawaiian or Thai chili plants alongside their bitter melons and bok choy. Radovich says he has no hard statistics on how many farmers are growing chilies or how much they produce, but he wants to see both numbers increase. And not everyone knows exactly what a Hawaiian chili is — they’re hard to distinguish from Thai chilies. “There’s a big market out there, and Hawai‘i can establish its own niche,” says Radovich. “But there’s a lot of confusion, and we’re hoping to provide clarity to both farmers and consumers — basically, we are trying to define what makes a Hawaiian chili Hawaiian.”
Radovich’s team isn’t merely trying to define the Hawaiian chili; it’s trying to improve it, make it bigger, better, badder. Bingham points admiringly to a tiny, fire engine-red Hawaiian chili hanging from a plant in the lab. “Can you imagine if we can develop a chili that has the size of a jalapeño but the heat of a Hawaiian?” “God forbid,” I reply.
According to Bev Matsuura, a good hot sauce balances flavor and heat, but those are relative terms. Matsuura, along with her husband, Mike Khan, owns Chili in Hawai‘i, a mobile hot pepper company that sells all things spicy—rubs, jellies and a line of molten-hot sauces — at the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet and at events around O‘ahu. The couple had a small storefront on King Street, but when the 2008 financial crisis hit their business, they hit the road.
Matsuura says that when they had their store, their customers were mainly “chiliheads”: thrill-seekers, mostly male, looking for the latest challenge. Over the past several years, though, she’s seeing more baby boomers whose taste buds are aging along with the rest of their bodies. “A lot of people have to watch their salt intake, so they’re turning to chili peppers to brighten up their food.” says Matsuura. “And I’m seeing more Japanese people, who aren’t known for eating very hot foods. In fact I get a lot of orders now from sushi bars and other Japanese restaurants. That never happened before.”
At a holiday craft fair in Kaimuki, Matsuura shows me one of her most popular sauces, Guava Lava: puréed guava and pineapple with onions, garlic and vinegar. The mustard-colored sauce doesn’t look as angry as her others, but it gets its heat from Hawaiian chilies, so it still needs to be treated with respect. There are about six different sauces, ranging from $8 for Guava Lava to $15 for her hottest, the XXXXX Ghost Pepper Sauce. Those five ominous X’s command a premium price because the sauce has a high concentration of peppers.
Being that my ancient taste buds represent Chili in Hawai‘i’s new target market, I buy several bottles: the Guava Lava, the Habanero & Garlic and the XXX Ghost Pepper sauces, which will give me a sense of what Chili in Hawai‘i regards as mild, medium and hot. At home I pour the sauces over leftover salmon, tofu and rice. The Guava Lava is fruity and sweet, but the heat comes fast and it lingers in the mouth. The sting of the Habanero & Garlic is sharp and immediate. It says “garlic” on the label but I can’t taste it; all I feel is heat spreading from my mouth to the rest of my face. This is medium?
I wait for my taste buds to recover before sampling the XXX. Then I take a deep breath and dig in. I can’t describe what XXX tastes like because I can’t taste anything. All there is is pain, searing pain. My eyes start to water, and I break out in a sweat. This is what chiliheads call getting “burnt up.” I’m spared the ear popping, stomach cramps and vomiting that are said to accompany a severe burn up, but still I feel woozy.
Several glasses of water later, I wonder: If this is the XXX, what’s the XXXXX like? Who could possibly handle two more X’s? Why?
Like a lot of locals, Rex Moribe missed chili pepper water, so the Kaua‘i native started brewing his own from an old family recipe after moving to Honolulu to attend college more than ten years ago. The self-described picky eater wanted something to liven up what had become an all-too-frequent meal for the struggling student: instant ramen.
Moribe’s story isn’t much different from the Parsons’. For years he’d been bringing bottles of his chili pepper water, which features only four ingredients — distilled vinegar, garlic, sea salt and Hawaiian chilies — to parties. Friends raved about it and urged him to go into business. As chili pepper water became harder to find, interest in his version grew. He went commercial and debuted Da Secret Sauce at the 2012 Made in Hawai‘i Festival, where he sold out of his seven hundred bottles; in 2013 he repeated the performance, this time with two thousand bottles.
Now Da Secret Sauce is in dozens of mom-and-pop stores and restaurants throughout the state. Moribe estimates that half his customers are nostalgic locals, but he also thinks his sauce appeals to another market: hot sauce newbies. Da Secret Sauce’s full-bodied, garlicky but mildly spicy flavor is a perfect entry-level hot sauce, a gateway drug. He brought some on a trip to Switzerland to visit his fiancée’s family. To his surprise his future in-laws, who don’t eat much spicy food, started pouring it on everything, including cheeses. “In a way, I made a hot sauce for people who don’t like hot sauces,” says Moribe.
Moribe has run afoul of the same supply problem plaguing the Parsons. He can produce only every three months—it takes him that long to get enough Hawaiian chilies from a Big Island grower and from his mom back on Kaua‘i. He solicits friends and friends of friends to donate from their own plants, exchanging Zip-Loc bags of peppers for bottles of sauce. While he’s experimented with other, more available chilies, he says, he hasn’t been able to duplicate the flavor of the Hawaiian chili. “I couldn’t compromise the recipe,” says Moribe. “I’ll close down the business before I do that.”
Strong words, but chiliheads love a purist. I buy a bottle and take it home. I don’t have instant ramen, but I have something even better: beef stew. I heat up a bowl with plenty of rice and apply a heavy dose of the cloudy, beige chili water. Da Secret Sauce packs a tangy punch that briefly masks some real heat. But it’s not a searing, hold-on-for-dear-life XXX Ghost Pepper heat — not even close. A battlescarred chilihead probably wouldn’t feel a thing, but there’s plenty of excitement for my battered taste buds. The heat quickly fades, revealing the sweet, almost floral flavor of the Hawaiian chili, eventually yielding to the flavor of the stew. I apply more and more sauce until the stew is gone. I’m going to have to buy another bottle. I remember what Bingham told me in his lab about someday developing a superchili for Hawai‘i farmers. Now it doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. I should have told him not to worry about turning up the heat; the Hawaiian chili’s just fine as it is. Maybe just figure out how to grow them as big as bell peppers.