Hawaii generally conjures images of idyllic beaches and slushy, umbrella-garnished drinks served in cleaved coconuts. And those things do exist in abundance on the islands. But chef and Hilo native Sheldon Simeon is on a quest to open mainlanders up to the culinary diversity of his home state at his upcoming restaurant Lineage. And on a recent trip to the lower 48, he showed off a concoction that is uniquely Hawaiian and couldn’t be further from the tropical flavors that dominate conceptions of the local cuisine. It also happens to be the secret weapon for your next Bloody Mary.
Chili pepper water is a deceivingly complex...well...it’s not entirely clear what to call it. Part condiment, part aperitif, it began as a simple mix of pounded chilies, salt and water used to season food on the islands. But as a diverse set of immigrants landed on Hawaiian shores, chili pepper water started to evolve. Portuguese sailors added vinegar to the mix, Filipino immigrants tossed in garlic and fish sauce, and as it spread from island to island, native seaweed added an extra briny, umami punch.
Whatever swirl of influences brought chili pepper water about, it is now a vital part of any Hawaiian gathering, according to Simeon. “It’s always on the table in a Hawaiian home,” he says. “My house was always the gathering spot for my dad and his friends. They’d have these pu pu parties and everyone brought their own chili pepper water to share.”
That personalization and variation is one reason Simeon thinks that, even though America is currently at peak condiment (Sriracha comes in bottles that clip on to your pants), chili pepper water remains sequestered to Hawaii. “It’s such an opinionated abyss with everyone having their own,” he says. People like it the way they make it or the way their grandparents made it, leaving it effectively impossible to mass market to the people who love it most.
But fortunately it’s incredibly easy to make. Our recipe is a basic outline, but feel free to experiment to find your perfect chili pepper water.
Hawaiian Chili Pepper Water Recipe
4 cups water
1 cup white vinegar
.5 cup fish sauce
4 garlic cloves, smashed
8-15 whole chilies depending on how hot you like it
1 2-inch piece of seaweed
A note on the chilies: If you can get a hold of some, you should use Hawaiian chili peppers or bird’s eye chilies. If not, habanero peppers come closest to matching the heat of those two.
A note on the seaweed: Simeon says that in Hawaii, people use local limu. It’s not as easy to find on the mainland, so we used kombu and the results were delicious.
- Add water, vinegar, fish sauce and salt to a large saucepan and bring to a boil.
- Remove from heat and add chilies, garlic and seaweed and let cool.
- Transfer to a jar, plastic jug, empty liquor bottle or anything that can be sealed, and let sit on the counter out of direct sunlight for at least three days and up to three months. The flavors will just keep getting better the longer you let it sit.
How to use it in a Bloody Mary:
The complex layers of flavor in chili pepper water make it work as a replacement for almost every other ingredient usually used in a Bloody Mary mix—it has heat from the chilies, tang from the vinegar and umami from the fish sauce. For every two cups of tomato juice use half a cup of chili pepper water, along with lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste. From there, just add two ounces of vodka to a pint glass filled and top off with as much of the mix as you want.