Like a lot of locals, Rex Moribe missed chili pepper water, so the Kaua‘i native started brewing his own from an old family recipe after moving to Honolulu to attend college more than ten years ago. The self-described picky eater wanted something to liven up what had become an all-too-frequent meal for the struggling student: instant ramen.
Moribe’s story isn’t much different from the Parsons’. For years he’d been bringing bottles of his chili pepper water, which features only four ingredients — distilled vinegar, garlic, sea salt and Hawaiian chilies — to parties. Friends raved about it and urged him to go into business. As chili pepper water became harder to find, interest in his version grew. He went commercial and debuted Da Secret Sauce at the 2012 Made in Hawai‘i Festival, where he sold out of his seven hundred bottles; in 2013 he repeated the performance, this time with two thousand bottles.
Now Da Secret Sauce is in dozens of mom-and-pop stores and restaurants throughout the state. Moribe estimates that half his customers are nostalgic locals, but he also thinks his sauce appeals to another market: hot sauce newbies. Da Secret Sauce’s full-bodied, garlicky but mildly spicy flavor is a perfect entry-level hot sauce, a gateway drug. He brought some on a trip to Switzerland to visit his fiancée’s family. To his surprise his future in-laws, who don’t eat much spicy food, started pouring it on everything, including cheeses. “In a way, I made a hot sauce for people who don’t like hot sauces,” says Moribe.
Moribe has run afoul of the same supply problem plaguing the Parsons. He can produce only every three months—it takes him that long to get enough Hawaiian chilies from a Big Island grower and from his mom back on Kaua‘i. He solicits friends and friends of friends to donate from their own plants, exchanging Zip-Loc bags of peppers for bottles of sauce. While he’s experimented with other, more available chilies, he says, he hasn’t been able to duplicate the flavor of the Hawaiian chili. “I couldn’t compromise the recipe,” says Moribe. “I’ll close down the business before I do that.”
Strong words, but chiliheads love a purist. I buy a bottle and take it home. I don’t have instant ramen, but I have something even better: beef stew. I heat up a bowl with plenty of rice and apply a heavy dose of the cloudy, beige chili water. Da Secret Sauce packs a tangy punch that briefly masks some real heat. But it’s not a searing, hold-on-for-dear-life XXX Ghost Pepper heat — not even close. A battlescarred chilihead probably wouldn’t feel a thing, but there’s plenty of excitement for my battered taste buds. The heat quickly fades, revealing the sweet, almost floral flavor of the Hawaiian chili, eventually yielding to the flavor of the stew. I apply more and more sauce until the stew is gone. I’m going to have to buy another bottle. I remember what Bingham told me in his lab about someday developing a superchili for Hawai‘i farmers. Now it doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. I should have told him not to worry about turning up the heat; the Hawaiian chili’s just fine as it is. Maybe just figure out how to grow them as big as bell peppers.