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Sarah Ili: Hot Chili Pepper Water

SarahIliSarah Ili with Hawaiian chili pepper water, seedlings and peppers.Hawai’i Homegrown Food Network (HHFN) correspondent, Rachel Laderman, met with Sarah Ili and talked with her about the chili pepper water she makes. There are many variations of this popular Hawaiian condiment. Sarah’s version is very straightforward – and very delicious. Sarah lives in Pepe’ekeo and works as a substitute teacher, then shares her all-local Hawaiian chili pepper water with family and friends.

HHFN: What goes into your hot chili pepper water?
Sarah: You use Hawaiian hot chili peppers (has to be that kind), limu kohu, and Hawaiian sea salt with red clay, which is called alaea.

HHFN: Does it have health benefits?
Sarah: Yes, it is good for iron, and the limu kohu has iodine. The alaea is good for strengthening and cleansing. It also replenishes your salt.

HHFN: How and where do you collect it?
Sarah: The limu kohu grows at the edge of the reef. It is called asparagus of the sea, because it is ferny. It has to have rough ocean. It likes the constant ebb and flow of the water going over it. You go out at low tide so you can wade out, and find it either at or below the water level. You can check the moon and the tide reports and look for a minus one or zero level tide, so you don’t have to protect yourself from the waves. There are many places along the coast where it grows.

HHFN: How did you learn to gather limu?
Sarah: Grandma was a limu picker and her mother - it’s generational. People had their certain areas they gathered. My grandma shared it with whoever wanted.

 HHFN: Did your grandma show you how to pick when you were little?
Sarah: She didn’t take me; I learned by listening. Certain people carry on the traditions. Everyone has a gift. I started picking as an adult.

HHFN: Do you still pick where your grandmother picked?
Sarah: No, those areas are not good for limu kohu now. People trample it, they don’t take care of it, they pick it all. Too much boating and the like can have an affect. You can’t just take it, you must take care of it.

HHFN: I heard it is called “kohu” because that means supreme.
Sarah: Limu kohu was, and still is, considered the best-liked or choicest limu. It is the name used throughout Hawai'i, but there are other names depending on its color and location found. For example Kaua'i's one is different from Maui and Maui's one is different from Hawai'i Island. There are also different names for limu kohu that grows in different places. It looks --- and also tastes -- different from place to place. Some places it is bushy and others, skimpy. You find the kind you like.

 SarahIliHawaiianchilipepperHawaiian hot chili pepper (Capsicum frutescens) is a bushy pepper plant that grows well in the Hilo area. The small, very hot peppers are held upright and ripen from yellow through orange to red. It is often used in tabasco sauce.

HHFN: Is there a special way to pick?
Sarah: Yes, there’s a protocol you have to go through. You give respect so things are not depleted. Whether you gather or eat, you have to show appreciation. Especially when you gather -- don’t take the whole thing. Your spirit, mind, and soul have to be in line. If not you might get bashed by the rocks! If you don’t follow the protocol of spirit mind and soul being together it can be dangerous.

HHFN: Did men ever pick limu, because it was dangerous out on the reef?
Sarah: No, women did the "fishing" on shore which included the reef in most areas, while men fished off shore.

HHFN: Do you ever collect the salt, too?
Sarah: The salt can be gathered off the rocks, but we buy it from Kauai, where they dry the salt in salt flats and add the red clay.

HHFN: How do you prepare the hot pepper water?
Sarah: First you soak the limu for a couple hours so you don’t get the strong iodine taste. Then boil down the whole chili peppers. Add the limu and the alaea to the hot chili pepper water, let it cool, and seal in a jar. There’s no specific amounts. You add however much spiciness you want -- you can put a handful of chili pepper in there!

HHFN: How do you use the hot chili pepper water?
Sarah: Use it on any foods that need spicing up, sprinkle it on anything. It can be kept in the refrigerator to be a “cooler” heat, but does not need refrigeration. It gets stronger as it sits.

SarahIliLimukohuLimu kohu (Asparagopsis taxiformis) has a peppery taste that makes it a local favorite in dishes such as poke, lomi, and sushi. (Photo courtesy of Andy Collins/NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.)


Rachel Laderman moved to Hawai'i Island four years ago to farm and live off-grid in a small community of friends and family. Before this she worked for 20 years as an Environmental Health Educator in Olympia, Washington. She feels extremely lucky to be able to spend her days planting, foraging, and preparing foods. Read her blog at http://marketlessmondays.wordpress.com/.

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