Hot Water

March 10, 2012

2011©Nick Blank Photo

This hot pepper was not on display at this year’s annual International Flower Show, hosted by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society at  Philadelphia’s Convention Center, even though this year’s theme was “Hawaii: Islands of Aloha.”

Former Philadelphian Nick Blank, who lives in Honolulu, sent this photo of a Hawaiian Chile Pepper, a very common hot ornamental that grows with abandon in his and many neighbors’ backyards. Dozens of other hot pepper varieties also grow all over the lush Islands.

Nick’s neighbor, Lynn, is native Hawaiian and her husband is Japanese. They use this particular pepper to make “Pepper Water,” a popular condiment that’s splashed on just about everything to give foods additional tang and kick.

Lynn’s recipe is simple: Add boiling water to some dried hot peppers in a clean, sterilized jar. Let cool, cover and refrigerate.

Like most things in Hawaii, these peppers are not a native species. In a land with a 12-month growing season, perfect weather – even when it rains – and near perfect soil conditions, Hawaii has long been an easy landing strip for introducing all manner of plants and produce from other parts of the world.

In the olden days, smart world adventurers brought their own food with them when headed for parts unknown. Polynesians came to the isolated archipelago possibly as early as 300-500 A. D. and soon colonized it with taro, sweet potato and yam, breadfruit and bananas, coconuts and sugarcane, as well as pigs, chickens and dogs.

Much later, in the late 1700s, roving seafarers like Captain Cook brought European animals and seeds. Another sea captain, George Vancouver, gifted a few longhorn cattle to Hawaiian King Kamehameha I, who allowed the critters to run wild on The Big Island, safe from all predators, including man. The lusty cattle begat unchecked until the King hired John Parker in 1809 to capture and domesticate the feral beasts. By 1830, beef was soon added to local menus and salt beef became a major export. To this day, the Parker Ranch on the island of Hawaii is one of the largest free-range beef cattle ranches in the US.

253Pineapple, from Brazil originally, wasn’t cultivated here until after 1813. In the mid-1800s, Hawaii’s bounty supplied California’s 49ers with Irish and sweet potatoes, onions, pumpkins, oranges, molasses, and coffee.

By the late 1800s, as certain commercial food growers became more dominant, Hawaii’s ruling monarchy was deposed by European and American business interests, with support from some US government agencies. Plantation crops of pineapple and sugarcane for export took over much of the agricultural landscape on the Islands. Hundreds of Asians and other ethnic groups immigrated to work on the plantations, contributing even more culinary influences to Hawaiian menus. Puerto Rican and Vietnamese immigrants followed in subsequent decades.

Where does the hot pepper figure into all this diversity? No doubt many varieties of hot peppers arrived via various immigration channels over the years, but credit for the Hawaiian Chile Pepper is usually given to Portuguese immigrants from Madeira and the Azores, who arrived on the Islands in the 19th century to work the fields and ranches. They also introduced the ukulele, as well as Pão Doce, a traditional Portuguese sweet bread. The popular brand King’s Hawaiian is a staple in supermarkets everywhere.

Hawaii’s agricultural heritage continues to evolve. Over the past decade, the pineapple and sugarcane industries have relocated their operations to other shores, and the former growing fields lie fallow on the garden islands. Small organic farms and specialty growers of Kona coffee, Macadamia nuts, and Maui onion and limes continue to thrive, yet more than 90 percent of Hawaii’s food is still imported!

Meanwhile, five major companies that dominate the world seed industry are buying and leasing prime Hawaiian farmland. The latest agricultural frontier in Hawaii? GMO corn seed.

History of Agriculture in Hawaii, State of Hawaii Department of Agriculture,
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“King Corn Takes Root in Hawaii,” by Paul Voosen of Greenwire, published August 20, 2011, The New York Times.
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Anita Mc Kelvey © 2011-2016 The Philadelphia Pepper Project
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