What makes Tinian hot
The pepper industry in focus
By Bryan Manabat
Tinian— Peppers grow wild on Tinian. Locally known as “donni sali,” they are a by-product of the island’s dynamic ecosystem. Pepper seeds are dispersed by the Sali bird, also known as the Marianas Starling. They congregate under huge trees, where they feed on wild peppers.
“Back then, we can find the wild hot peppers under huge trees, but over time, they started spreading everywhere," said Deborah Aldan Fleming, owner of Tinian Fleming Hotel.
In the early years, the municipal government started a dialogue with other countries that produce habaneros and jalapenos, Fleming said. "We were trying to have a heat contest, which hot pepper is the hottest and spiciest, but we never succeeded in going that way," she added.
But that did not douse Tinian’s hopes of introducing its pepper outside of the island. Island residents soon found a way to monetize nature’s wild bounty, producing a distinct product that was later marketed and sold to Saipan and Guam. The now-famous Tinian Pika Pepper eventually hit the U.S. market, creating the island’s main export industry.
In 2014, the Tinian Department of Labor reported that pepper gathering for sale is a common source of income for community members who are not working full-time and is a supplement to income for those who need extra money.
Each year, Tinian celebrates its homegrown product in a cultural event that draws visitors from off-island. The 19th Annual Tinian Hot Pepper Festival, also known as "Pika Fest," one of the Marianas Visitors Authority’s signature events, was held on Feb. 18 and 19 at the fiesta grounds in the village of San Jose. The annual Pika Fest also showcases other cultural aspects of Tinian, such as canoe making and canoe races.
"The brainchild of this event is my sister, Ellen Fleming Ikehara, who was then with the Marianas Visitors Authority," said Fleming, the mother of Leila Fleming Staffler, a former lawmaker who ran for lt. governor in the November 2022 elections.
“My sister was always looking for ways to feature Tinian, not just for tourism purposes, (but to highlight) what makes Tinian stand out— and it’s the Tinian hot pepper that does.”
Pepper is a spice that is ubiquitous in CHamoru cuisine.
"There are so many kinds of hot pepper, but the donni sali, is so uniquely Tinian. The hot pepper in the wild by the sali is so distinctive. When you take a bite of the donni sali, especially the green ones, the flavor just explodes in your mouth,” Fleming said. “It’s so good and beautiful, but you need to know how you eat it. You have to have some food in your mouth when you bite into it because it’s so spicy and hot— “pika” in CHamoru.”
Fina denni', a CHamoru dipping sauce with hot pepper, is a mainstay condiment in every local home.
"It was Daidai— Trinidad Mendiola Pangelinan—who started marketing the donni sali. She started putting them in baby food jars and selling it. She was marketing it to Saipan and Guam."
From there, others followed suit, creating donni sali in different variations, including the powdered hot pepper, which is easy to transport.
Fleming said the pepper powder product was pioneered by Pangelinan’s son and his wife. "They have been working on it all their lives,” she said.
The peppers are sun-dried, turned into flakes and ground into powder form. “They add other things, in their particular, donni mix. It’s not a secret. They also sun-dry garlic, then grind it together with the hot pepper and add salt. It looks like a dry fina denni. You can sprinkle it on your food."
In 2012, then governor Benigno R. Fitial signed into law a bill that includes pepper among the list of indigenous plant species that fall under the government protection and conservation program.
The law prohibits indiscriminate uprooting of hot pepper plants, a practice that undermines production and harvest. The law gives each senatorial district of Saipan, Tinian, and Rota the authority to enact local laws and regulations to protect hot pepper and medicinal plants.