Hawaiian chili peppers are small chilis, growing up to an inch long on a large bush that can reach up to four feet in height. The peppers grow pointing up to the sky. Hawaiian chili peppers mature to a bright red color and are available year-round. The small peppers are very big on spice, and rank high on the Scoville Heat scale – around 200,000 SHU.
In Hawai‘i, these small but potent peppers are also known as Bird Beak, likely due to the method in which these peppers were spread throughout the tropical islands – by birds eating the peppers and depositing seeds in their droppings. The shape of the pepper – resembling a small bird beak – may also have something to do with the name.
Like other members of the pepper family, Hawaiian chili peppers are high in vitamins C and A. The high amount of capsaicin in the Hawaiian chili peppers serves as a stimulant, with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Capsaicin is also used as a pain reliever for those suffering from arthritis or migraines.
It is thought that Hawaiian chili peppers came to Hawaii by way of Don Francisco de Paul Marin, a Spanish horticulturalist who came to Hawaii at the end of the 18th century. Marin was also responsible for the first mangoes in Hawaii. Additionally, it is most likely the Portuguese who are responsible for the popularly-used Hawaiian condiment, chili pepper water.
Hawaiian chili peppers are likely native to Central and South America, as are most members of the Capsicum genus. The two most popular members of C. frutescens are the tobasco and cayenne varieties. The Capsicum peppers’ small size make them ideal snacks for birds, who do not have the same reaction to capsaicin as humans do. Birds are another likely suspect for how chilis reached the island chain of Hawaii. Hawaiian chili peppers are known to local Hawaiians as nīoi, or nīoi pepa. The plants produce an average of 100 peppers each, making them prolific growers.
The most popular way to use Hawaiian chili peppers in Hawai‘i is for making ‘chili pepper water’ or ‘fire water’, a spicy sauce used as a condiment on everything from eggs to rice and even in cocktails. Chili pepper water is made by combining garlic, a handful of Hawaiian chili peppers, salt and water. The concoction is put in a jar, shaken a bit and left to sit in a cool, dark place for a month before it’s used.
CHILI PEPPER WATER
RECIPE COURTESY OF GAGE SMIT, SOUS CHEF, BROWN’S BEACH HOUSE AND HALE KAI, FAIRMONT ORCHID, HAWAII
8 ounces water
2 ounces white vinegar
1 teaspoon Hawaiian sea salt
2 each cloves of garlic, crushed
2 each fresh ginger slices
1 ounce Ogo seaweed
15 each Hawaiian chili peppers, sliced
> Add the ingredients to a small pot and bring to a quick boil.
> Reduce the heat to simmer for five minutes.
> Remove from heat and cool. Once cool transfer to a sterilized bottle.
> Let sit for at least five days before use. The longer it sits the more the flavors will infuse — it gets better over time.
> This will keep in the refrigerator for about a year.