Hawaii’s Hottest Chili Cook-Off

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Every Memorial Day on Round Top Drive, a cannon sounds to signal the start of a much-anticipated chili cook-off. Most have been participating since the ritual started decades ago and call themselves veterans of the stew-like soup made entirely of meats, chilies and chili powders. This year’s Great Hawaiian Chili Cook-Off, however, took on a flavor of its own – one with a somber undertone, as it was the very last time that Hawaii chili lovers would revel in the spirit of this Mexican dish.

According to this team, bell peppers are a “must-have” in any good chili recipe.

Since the late 1980s, chili enthusiasts Dr. Jack Scaff and his wife Donna have graciously opened up their home to hundreds of fellow chili fanatics. This year would be their last hoorah. Luckily, I live right down the street from what has been called one of the island’s hottest cook-offs and got a taste of my first (and last) cook-off this past Memorial Day. By mid-morning, the entire street was packed with cars; so packed, that shuttles have to transport people up and down the notoriously winding hill.

White-topped tents line the long driveway; underneath, cooks from Hawaii and across the nation race the clock as they slice, dice and mix their hopefully winning recipes. We spent some time talking story with a team of local ladies who has been entering for the past 16 years. They laughed and joked with each other while throwing fresh ingredients into the big boiling pot. The ladies told me that although their recipe somehow gets spicier and spicier every year, the flavor always seems to fit with their team motto: “Some like it HOT!” And, boy, did their chili have a kick! Or maybe it’s just that my threshold for spice is somewhat on the lower end than most who quickly slurped up the sample beside me.

These women have been a part of the Hawaii chili craze for the past 16 years.

Of course a day of chili wouldn’t be complete without live entertainment from a mariachi band and a group of Scottish bagpipe players. Everyone danced and “cheersed” their (free) beers and margaritas before the winners were finally announced. The winner happened to be a guy from Texas, who calls his chili, the “Alien Chili;” not only because it was “out-of-this-world delicious” but because he considers himself an alien! (I promise; that’s what he told us.) Perhaps that’s the secret to a successful recipe – one that’s made by a cook as quirky as this guy!

No word yet on if the annual cook-off will continue in the care of some other chili enthusiasts. I’m hoping so because it’s one of the only places in the islands that you’ll find authentic Mexican cuisine and a community tightly knit by an affinity for all things chili.


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