Habanero peppers.
Habanero peppers.

Ryan Tatsumoto
Hawai‘i Herald Columnist

What condiment do you find on dining room tables in Hawai‘i almost as often as shoyu? A good guess would be home-concocted chili pepper water — you know, that suspension of ground Hawaiian chili peppers mashed with salt or sometimes fresh garlic or vinegar and usually stored in either a 16-ounce recycled water bottle or a reused memmi bottle. The 50th’s love of chili pepper water has inspired manufacturers to market their own version of the local favorite.

What’s a Chili Pepper?

All members of the pepper family are rooted in the genus Capsicum, which is part of the larger Solanaceae family — it includes potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant and tobacco. What makes members of the Capsicum genus different is their level of capsaicin production, the compound that gives chili peppers its culinary heat.

The rating of capsaicin is measured in Scoville units — the higher the Scoville rating, the greater the heat on the palate. It is a subjective measurement, as dried peppers are mixed first with alcohol to extract the capsaicin and then diluted with sugar water, which is sampled by five trained tasters. The tasters are fed the continuously diluted samples until at least three of them can no longer detect any heat. Thus, the most diluted samples correspond with the hottest chili peppers. Your basic supermarket bell pepper would rate as zero Scoville units since it doesn’t produce capsaicin and does not need any additional dilution since there is no heat.

At the other end is the Carolina Reaper chili pepper, which rates over 1.5 million Scoville units. Pure capsaicin extract is rated at 18 million Scoville units, but it has no culinary application whatsoever. Of course, I’m a capsaicin lightweight, so I usually avoid anything over 20,000 Scoville units.

Why Eat Anything So Hot?

Hardcore “chili heads” swear that consuming copious amounts of chili peppers causes endorphins to be released in the brain. That, in turn, binds to the same subset of receptors as opiates such as morphine and oxycodone, giving chili heads the same response as someone who just took their dose of Roxicet. It’s like an addict who just injected his or her dose of opiates. As with any addictive substance, the chili head continues to seek hotter and hotter concoctions to relive that chili “buzz.” As crazy as it sounds, there is some science behind the capsaicin-endorphin connection.

There is an OTC topical cream that uses capsaicin to stimulate the release of Substance P, which is involved in pain transmission. After applying the capsaicin cream three to four times a day, the continual release of Substance P eventually depletes it, thus reducing the transmission of pain to the brain. For the first few days of application, the affected area might seem to have a pronounced pain or burning sensation that is even worse than the pain initially being treated — until Substance P is depleted in the next week or so. You have to faithfully apply the Substance P three to four times a day or the Substance P simply replenishes itself, causing continued pain and burning. Personally, I’ll stick to longer aerobic activities or laughter to release my natural endorphins.

Enhance, Not Overwhelm

Some 30 years ago while attending graduate school in San Francisco, the future Mrs. and I came across a quaint Korean restaurant in the city’s Sunset District. During our first visit there, one specific menu item caught her eye: Cold Noodle Salad with Skate Wing (stingray). When she attempted to order it, the Korean server dissuaded us from ordering it, explaining that only Korean people usually order it.

We had a great meal even without the skate wing. Still, it bugged the future Mrs. that she wasn’t able to try it. “I don’t like it when someone tells me not to do something,” she said. So, on a subsequent visit to the same restaurant a month or two later, she again tried to order the Cold Noodle Salad. She got the same warning. This time, she persisted.

When the dish arrived at our table, it just looked like somen-type noodles covered in what appeared to be tomato paste sprinkled with green onions with bits of the raw skate wing. Of course, the person who ordered it suggested that I try it first. So, I scooped up some of the cold noodles, which didn’t taste much like the skate wing. And then, hey, I don’t think this is tomato paste. WHOA! Is this Tabasco paste? Did I mention that my sweat glands are acutely tuned to capsaicin?

For the rest of the meal, Niagara Falls was flowing off of my noggin’. Our server felt so sorry for me that she left a whole pitcher of ice water at our table, although I suspect that whenever she left our table, she was probably thinking to herself, “I told you so . . .” To this day, I always remind the Mrs. that when a server tries to convince you not to order a certain dish, it’s probably for a very good reason and for your own good!

Although I still avoid dishes that are purely a chili pepper burn and nothing else, I do enjoy chili-spiked dishes and sauces that enhance the dining experience without overwhelming it . . . like just the right amount of heat in a perfect prawns in chili sauce or mapo tofu. I also love Tabasco Chipotle sauce on pasteles or gandule rice, and Cajun cuisine just isn’t the same without a little bit of heat that warms the mouth and then slowly moves to the back of the throat, like my version of the traditional Texas red that contains just meat, chili and spices.

Hold-Um Chili

5 pounds beef (chuck, round or sirloin)

2 ounces dried Ancho chili, stemmed and seeded

1 ounce dried Guajillo chili, stemmed and seeded

2 to 3 dried chili Negro, stemmed and seeded

1 to 2 whole chipotle chili (canned) with 2 tablespoons adobo sauce

2 quarts low-sodium chicken stock

5 cloves fresh garlic, minced

1 large onion, finely diced

2 tablespoons smoked paprika

3/4 teaspoon powdered cinnamon

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 tablespoon dried oregano

Several dashes of ground allspice

2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

2 to 3 tablespoons fine cornmeal (optional)

Salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste

Vegetable oil

When selecting beef, I look first for Hawai‘i-raised beef because grass-fed beef tastes better. Although it can be tough in texture, this recipe calls for cooking over a long period, so any connective tissue will break down.

If you are going strictly for flavor, choose chuck. For my home consumption, I look for leaner cuts, like round or bottom sirloin. Cut your beef to about ½- to ¾-inch thick, salt and pepper it and then place in a smoker for about an hour, flipping it over about halfway through the smoking process.

In the meantime, lightly toast the dried chili in a saucepan — make sure that you don’t burn it. Simmer in about 1 quart of chicken stock along with the chipotle and adobo for five to 10 minutes until the dried chili has rehydrated and softened. Let it cool and then puree it in a blender with just enough chicken stock to form a thick sauce.

After the smoked beef has rested for at least 20 minutes, cut it into bite-sized cubes. Heat the vegetable oil in a Dutch oven, add the onions and garlic and cook until softened. Add the dried spices until the mixture is fragrant (don’t let it burn!) and add the cubed, smoked beef. Add the chili sauce and the rest of the chicken stock and simmer for 2 1/2 to 3 hours. Season with additional salt and black pepper (I use smoked sea salt). If you want a thicker chili, you can mix the cornmeal with some of the cooking liquid and add it to the chili while it is still simmering. Alternatively, the entire mixture can be cooked in a pressure cooker for about one hour.

So, the next time you’re looking to spice up your life, consider the Capsicum family to perk up your dishes. I suggest going the “baby bear route” and seasoning until it’s “juuust right” — otherwise you’ll experience the mantra learned by chili heads worldwide on their first extreme capsaicin experience: hot in, hot out.

Ryan Tatsumoto is a clinical pharmacist by day. In his off-hours, however, he and his wife enjoy seeking out perfect marriages of food and wine. Ryan is a certified sommelier and a certified specialist of wine. The Windward O‘ahu resident also writes a column for San Francisco’s Nichi Bei Weekly called “The Gochiso Gourmet.”


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