The sound of the surf gently awakes me from my nap. The water laps at the foot of my beach chair. I am sitting on Oahu's windward coast on Kailua Bay. I look above and see a silvery palm blowing in the blue wind. In one hand, I have a Mai Tai with a funny, pink umbrella. In the other, just sand. Indeed, I have reached a type of Pacific nirvana. Life is grand.
But, wait. There is something terribly wrong in this perfect postcard picture. It's trouble in paradise. It's red alert. I begin to contemplate the past few days. Drat! I always do this critical introspection at times of tranquility, and typically it leads me down some very dark roads.It all began at the obligatory luau the other night, eating bland dishes of sticky poi, stuffed pig, and overdone chicken. The hottest things at this staged tourist event were ceremonial torches illuminating the lovely hula dancers. That was followed the next day by the "lunch plate," a Honolulu tradition for a hearty midday meal. The "plate" (more like a platter) contains white, heaping mounds of rice, macaroni salad, and potato salad. These mandatory side dishes are dispensed with oversized ice cream scoops. They surround the main food item, usually an overstuffed sandwich or a Spam dish. For some inexplicable reason, Spam is an island favorite.
After three days of bland Hawaiian food, my palate was in revolt. So great was my need for fiery fare that I suddenly lurched from my beach chair, spilling my half-finished Mai Tai. I ran for the rental car. Bayside bliss would have to wait. The hunt was now on for some Honolulu heat.
In a flash, I was heading over the Ko'olau Mountains heading full speed down the Likelike (pronounced LEE-kay, LEE-kay) Highway. I pondered my lack of self control, but only for a moment. The highrises of Waikiki were now in sight, and the promise of peppers was in the air.
As I drove through downtown Honolulu, I began to notice a cultural fusion which before had escaped me. There was McCulley's Chop Suey Shop, the Surf Taco Café, and Uncle Lani's Poi Pub & Eatery. Irish/Chinese? Island/Mexican? Hawaiian/British? These cross-cultural mixings all made sense. Look at a world map and the Hawaiian Islands sit in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean. For centuries, people from many cultures made there way here. Some used Hawaii as a welcomed tropical pit stop on their way to distant ports of call. Others, enchanted by the place, stayed here and brought with them new languages, customs, and cuisine.
Apparently, native Hawaiians never had hot and spicy food until the early 1800s. Some believe that Spaniard Don Francisco de Paula Marin introduced the first chile peppers to the islands along with a numbers of other plants including the pineapple. Others look to the famed Parker Ranch on the Big Island where cowboys from Mexico were brought in to help with ranching duties. The caballeros, of course, would have brought large amounts of chiles with them. Unlike me, they were unsure of their return date home. It makes sense that the cow pokes would not have been denied their pepper pleasures.
According to Austus Mosley, owner of the Hawaiian Pepper Company on Maui, the Mexican peppers soon spread through the islands by a heat-seeking bird called the Japanese Whiteye. This small, green beauty not only has a voracious appetite for chiles, but its intra-island mobility rivals Aloha Airlines. It was not long before wild peppers were thriving in rich, volcanic soils throughout the islands.
A busy Saturday tasting at It's Chili in Hawaii.
But I digress. Historical diversions do nothing for a poor soul in search of Honolulu heat. Frantically, I turned on South King Street. In the distance, a bright yellow sign caught my eye. I could hardly believe it. I had found the mother load--It's Chili in Hawaii. I entered this island hot shop and met owners Ken Martinez, a transplanted New Mexican, and Gary Toyama whose family hails from Okinawa. Again, cultural fusion. Gary explained that the day he and Ken conceived the company's name seven years ago, it was an uncharacteristically-low sixty degrees in Honolulu. Thus, It's Chili in Hawaii. Double entendres work for me.
Ken Martinez (left) and Gary Toyama in front of their Honolulu hot shop, It's Chili in Hawaii.
I urged Ken to move on and show me his hot stuff. He led me to their Hawaiian products section near a small placard which read, "Mild is a four-letter word." I was impressed. More than 50 island-made chile products grace their shelves ranging from bottled hot sauces to chile-flavored Ono shrimp chips. Ono means delicious in Hawaiian and this light snack food does not disappoint. We began the tasting session.I sampled a piquant jelly by Island Preserve that blends sweet Maui onions and Hawaiian chile peppers. I tasted the Paradise Pepper Sauce line that comes in mango, papaya, or ginger. I tried a bit of Hawaiian Gourmet chocolate chile mix. Time out. My neglected palate was pulsating profusely. I explained to Gary how I was glad to finally get some Honolulu heat, and related my disappointment with the tourist-contrived luau that I had attended.
Locals can choose from more than 50 Hawaiian chile products.
"Hawaiians only serve the bland fare to the tourists. If you go to a genuine backyard luau, you can find great hot and spicy." There is poké, a raw fish dish that is marinated in chile peppers. There is pipikaula, a chile-laced pork. And there is chile pepper water, a thin liquid of, well, chiles and water. Hawaiians use this frequently as a marinade on pork or fish. Gary showed me several from the shelf. Ezaki's is a chile pepper water with garlic. Uncle Bill's adds salt and vinegar to his. And there is Auntie Soon's chile water which has a Korean twist. Auntie also sells a line of tantalizing kimchi sauces.
Then it was back to Ken and more Hawaiian heat. "Ono Drizzle is our number one best seller. It's used as a salad dressing or you can drizzle it on chicken, fish or tofu." Made by Hawaiian Kine, this vinegar-based sauce blends chile peppers with pineapple, canola oil, and garlic. Ken then grabbed a tiny bottle of QQ Wasabi Oil and added of few drops in with the Ono Drizzle. "This combo give you some mild heat with a Japanese taste".
Ken Martinez uses these two products, Ono Drizzle and Wasabi Oil to make a cross-cultural salad dressing.
My cultural-mixing theory of Hawaii and its food was now fact.I pushed on and went to the hot sauces. I was incinerated by a shot of North Shore's Nitro "Force 10" Hot Sauce. Upon recovery, I was blasted again by Auntie Soon's Dangerous Hot Sauce which contains Thai and Congo peppers, and for good measure, two types of habaneros. Mahalo! Thank you! It was time for more flavor and less heat. I ended the session with Moloka'i Hot Sauce, my favorite of the day. This sauce blends banana, curry, coconut, ginger juice and habanero into a tasteful, tropical blend. I bought three bottles as I wiped my wet brow and prepared to leave.
The author's Hawaiian hot sauce of choice - a mix of banana, curry, coconut, ginger juice and habanero.
Beyond selling product, It's Chili in Hawaii offers cooking classes every Saturday, free to the public. Ken and Gary realize the need to show the people of Honolulu creative ways to incorporate hot and spicy into their cuisine (see recipes below). Most sessions feature one of the Hawaiian hot sauce makers who sell their products here. Soon the store will be selling "plates to go"which will include stews, deserts, and lightly-spiced fare. Ken has plans to feature his New Mexico Green Chile Stew. He is the only source for New Mexico green chile in Hawaii.
I bid fond farewell to my new friends, and left with a fresh insight to the pepper possibilities that Hawaii offers. Wander further down South King Street and you will find a number of restaurants with hot and spicy fare. Undoubtedly, one of the best is Chiang-Mai Thai Restaurant. My Honolulu friend Jim Hollyer steered me there where our group ordered a yellow curry dish, pad thai, and an entré of Evil Shrimp, crustaceans served with vegetables in a rich red curry sauce.
I specified "hot" for the yellow curry plate, and that's what I received. Our waitress informed me that the chef was generous is using fresh, in-season red Thai peppers grown on Oahu. For those, Chiang-Mai pays $5 per pound, far better than the $15 per pound off-season rate for ground Thai peppers purchased from the mainland.
On another evening, I had the opportunity to meet chef Russell Siu at the trendy 3360 On The Rise. He and his partner Gail Ogawa started the restaurant ten years ago, and specialize in what they call Euro-Island cuisine. Russell worked with a number of talented European chefs at Waikiki hotels before starting this place. He has taken that experience, along with his island background, to create some unique, exotic blends. Dishes include seafood with saffron scented linguine, roast rack of macadamia nut-crusted lamb, and prosciutto wrapped tenderloin with mushroom duxelle.
Co-owner and chef Russell Siu brings Honolulu heat to the Euro-Island cuisine served at his restaurant 3360 On The Rise.
But Russell also has a passion for peppers, and prepared several dishes for me to try. For an appetizer, I nibbled on sweet chile chicken--a sort of Buffalo chicken wings with a honeyed, oriental flair. I also tried frizzled shrimp with chipotle aioli sauce. This unique dish is mildly spicy and beautifully displayed. Each shrimp is covered with a wrap that looks like shredded wheat (actually shredded coconut), accompanied by the flavorful aioli, a type of mayonnaise sauce. Chef Russell also makes a crab-crusted mahi mahi with a plum wine chile sauce.3360 On The Rise gets many of its chiles from Russell's home garden where he grows Thai, habenero, and jalapeño peppers. These serve the clientele well, although the chef admits they use peppers lightly as to not overpower the delicate flavors of the Euro-Island cuisine. Eighty percent of the restaurant's clientele are local, making this a real treat for a visiting traveler. Entrés are in the $20-$30 range.
I had one last day in Oahu. It was time for some island driving. It was fitting that I play some slack key guitar music on the CD from Led Kaapana and Bob Brozman, another example of cultural gumbo. These two musicians mix steel guitar and slack key, a Hawaiian guitar style that traces its roots to those same Mexican caballeros responsible for introducing chile peppers here so long ago. Time and palm trees glided by. Before I knew it, I was at Kahuku on Oahu's North Shore. There I had a lunch of spicy shrimp out of Giovanni's Shrimp Truck. It turns out that Portuguese owner Connie Aragona is from Mozambique, Africa, from where she imports her pungent peppers. As I ate the last of my spicy shrimp, I felt contented. Hawaii will always attract those from afar, bringing their exciting fiery fare to these beautiful islands.
Hawaiian chiles are difficult to find, even in Hawaii. There are no commercial growing operations and the ones grown in back yards are often eaten by birds. Substitute fresh piquins, bird’s eye, or the small Thai prik kee nu chiles.
In a pot, bring the water to a boil. Remove from the heat and add the rest of the ingredients. Transfer to a blender and puree until smooth. Pour the sauce into a bottle and store in the refrigerator.
Yield: 2 cups
Heat Scale: Hot
Ono-Licious Corn Relish
This recipe by Gary Toyama features Ono Drizzle Sauce, the best-selling sauce at It’s Chili in Hawaii. You can order it from the shop by calling (808) 945-7070 or substitute your favorite hot and spicy salad dressing. Gary says this recipe makes a delicious side dish.
2 11-ounce cans of whole kernel sweet corn
1 cup diced red onion
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 Japanese cucumber, seeded and diced
½ cup jicama or water chestnuts, diced
1 jalapeño chiles, seeds and stem removed, minced
1 cup Ono Drizzle Sauce, or substitute hot and spicy creamy salad dressing
½ cup chopped pecans or walnuts
In a bowl, combine all ingredients and mix well.
Yield: 6 servings
Heat Scale: Medium
Frizzled Shrimp with Chipotle Aioli
A signature fusion dish at 3660 on the Rise, in Honolulu, Frizzled Shrimp was created by Executive Chef Russell Siu.
2 chipotle chiles, soaked in hot water for an hour
½ teaspoon grated ginger
1/4 teaspoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon barbecue sauce
½ teaspoon ground cumin
4 egg yolks
2 cups vegetable oil
In a blender, combine the chiles, ginger, garlic, barbecue sauce, cumin, and egg yolks. Puree for 1 minute, slowly adding the oil. The mixture will start to thicken. Transfer the aioli to a serving bowl.
16 shrimp, peeled and deveined with tails on
Salt and pepper
16 pieces filo dough, cut 12 inches long and 1 inch wide
1 egg, beaten
Vegetable oil for deep frying
Season the shrimp with salt and pepper. Wrap each shrimp in the dough with the tails sticking our and seal the seams by brushing with the beaten egg and pressing on them. Deep fry the shrimp in oil for 1 ½ minutes. Drain on paper towels. Serve drizzled with the chipotle aioli.
Yield: 4 servings
Heat Scale: Medium
Sweet Chile Chicken Tidbits
Here’s another great recipe from Russell Siu that’s incredibly easy to make. You can add some heat by adding a hotter sauce to the sweet chile sauce. Serve these tidbits over rice accompanied by a spinach salad.
½ cup flour
½ cup cornstarch
4 chicken thighs, deboned and cut into 1 ½ inch cubes
Vegetable oil for deep frying
½ cup Asian sweet chile sauce (see recipe below)
In a bowl, combine the flour and cornstarch. Season the chicken with salt and pepper and dredge in the flour mixture, shaking off the excess. Deep fry the tidbits in 350 degree oil for 5 minutes. Drain on paper towels and toss in the sweet chile sauce.
Yield: 2 servings
Heat Scale: Mild
Sweet Chile Sauce
Sweet chile sauces, popular in Asian cuisines, are available in Asian markets–or you can make your own, like this recipe from Chef Russell Siu. This recipe uses the larger and milder Thai chiles.
1 cup mirin (sweetened rice wine)
½ cup soy sauce
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup sake
1/4 cup cornstarch mixed with water until smooth
1/4 cup minced Thai chiles (prik chee fa)
In a non-reactive pot, add the mirin, soy sauce, sugar, and sake and bring to a boil. Thicken by adding the cornstarch and water and stirring well. Simmer over low heat for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and add the chiles.
Yield: About 2 cups
Heat Scale: Medium
Ahi Shoyu Poke
Poke, pronounced (POH-kay) is the Hawaii version of Japanese sashimi and differs in that it is chopped, not sliced, and is highly seasoned.. Serve this appetizer over romaine lettuce.
1 pound fresh raw tuna, cut into ½ inch cubes
1 tomato, chopped
4 fresh red Hawaiian chiles, seeds and stems removed, minced, or substitute piquins or chiltepins
½ cup chopped Maui onion, or substitute Vidalia
2 tablespoons soy sauce (shoyu)
1 teaspoon sesame oil
In a bowl, combine all ingredients and mix well. Cover and refrigerate until serving.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
Heat Scale: Medium
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