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Hawaiian chile peppers are small chiles, growing up to an inch long. They grow on a large bushy plant that can reach up to four feet in height. The long green stems grow almost straight up, with the peppers pointing up to the sky. Hawaiian chile peppers are yellow and mature into a bright red. The small peppers are very big on spice, and rank as high as a habanero pepper on the Scoville Heat scale – around 200,000 SHU. The capsaicin in the peppers is concentrated in the pale yellow seeds and orange-red ribs inside the pepper.
Hawaiian chile peppers are available year-round.
Hawaiian chile peppers are botanically classified as Capsicum frutescens though it is also known under the classification C. annuum L. var. glabriusculum. There are some in the chile pepper world that believe the few varieties of frutescens peppers should be catalogued as members of the annuum family. In Hawai’i, these small but potent peppers are also known as Bird peppers, 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.
Like other members of the pepper family, Hawaiian chile peppers are high in vitamins C and A. The high amount of capsaicin in the Hawaiian chile 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.
The most popular way to use Hawaiian chile peppers in Hawai’i is for making ‘chile pepper water’ or ‘fire water, ’a spicy sauce used as a condiment on everything from eggs to rice and even in cocktails. Chile pepper water is made by combining garlic, a handful of Hawaiian chile 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. Another popular use for the peppers is ‘volcanic jam’ or jelly. Add the spicy peppers to soups or salsas, meat dishes, sausages or baked goods. Hawaiian chile peppers can be stored in the refrigerator for up to a week.
It is believed by some that Hawaiian chile 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. Another possibility is that the pepper arrived with the Portuguese who first arrived in Hawaii in the mid-16th century. It is also the Portuguese who may be responsible for the popularly-used Hawaiian condiment, chile pepper water.
Hawaiian chile peppers likely were native to Central and South America, as are most members of the Capsicum genus. There is very little variation among the frutescens species, which has led many botanists to believe that the peppers are truly a subspecies of C. annuum and not a different species altogether. The two most popular members of C. frutescens are the tobasco and cayenne varieties. The size of the small Capsicum peppers make them ideal snacks for birds, who do not react the same to capsaicin as humans do. Birds are very likely the method in which the chiles reached the island chain of Hawaii and other tropical South Pacific islands beyond. Hawaiian chile peppers are known to local Hawaiians as nioi, or nioi pepa. The plants produce an average of 100 peppers each, making them prolific growers. The small, spicy Hawaiian chile peppers can be found at local markets and farmer’s markets throughout Hawaii.