What are fish peppers?
There are few peppers as beautiful, and as rare, as the fish pepper. Along with its lovely flowering plant, the fish pepper follows one of the most unique coloration paths (among chilies) while maturing. With a heat that’s capable of topping a serrano (a range from 5,000 to 30,000 Scoville heat units), the fish pepper was a favorite during the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Baltimore and the mid-Atlantic states, spicing up crabs and fish dishes in particular. But its popularity wained, and this jewel of a chili nearly became lost to us all. Now, though, it’s making a comeback both as a cooking chili and as an ornamental pepper plant.
Table of Contents
- What are fish peppers?
- Fish pepper fast facts
- What’s the history of the fish pepper?
- How hot is the fish pepper?
- What does a fish pepper taste like?
- What does it look like?
- Cooking with fish peppers
- Where can you buy fish peppers?
- Must-read related posts
Fish pepper fast facts
|Scoville heat units (SHU)||5,000 – 30,000|
|Median heat (SHU)||17,500|
|Jalapeño reference point||Equal heat to 12 times hotter|
|Origin||United States (via the Caribbean)|
|Size||Approximately 2 to 3 inches long|
What’s the history of the fish pepper?
This is one of those chilies that became part of a region’s fabric, at least for a period. The fish pepper was brought to the mid-Atlantic region – it’s believed – from the Caribbean in the late 19th century (1870s). The African-American communities of the Chesapeake Bay area and major cities of the region (Baltimore and Philadelphia in particular) took to the chili and made it a culinary staple for oyster and crab houses. That’s where the name for this chili was coined.
But this chili pepper was more of a cooking secret than something well-documented. These fish houses typically used the white-hued versions of the chili (very early in the chili’s maturation process), so that the pepper blended perfectly into creamy sauces – keeping the fish pepper low-profile in meals. There were few (if any) recipes written down, just the knowledge passed down orally from generation to generation.
As urbanization in the mid-Atlantic spread in the early 20th century, the fish pepper nearly became a casualty of the changing times. With few written recipes and an evolving cultural landscape, its use in the region slipped. In fact, it essentially disappeared.
It was only in the 1940s that it was saved from being an after-thought on the Scoville scale. A Pennsylvanian named Horace Pippin, while seeking some bees for an arthritis folk remedy, exchanged a selection of seeds to a beekeeper name H. Ralph Weaver. In the bunch were fish pepper seeds.
These seeds stayed in the Weaver private collection until H. Ralph passed down the seeds to his grandson William Woys Weaver. In 1995 – nearly a century after the top of its popularity – the fish pepper was reintroduced by William to the public. That’s some journey back to the kitchen.
How hot is the fish pepper?
It’s believed that the fish pepper is a hybrid of the serrano (10,000 to 23,000 Scoville heat units or SHU) and the cayenne pepper (30,000 to 50,000 SHU), and the heat fits right in-between these two. The fish pepper has a Scoville heat range from 5,000 to 30,000 Scoville heat units.
Compared to our jalapeño reference point, fish peppers always equals the heat of a jalapeño (2,500 to 8,000 SHU), but it can eclipse it easily, topping out at 12 times hotter. It’s more in line with its parent, the serrano chili. Its floor is lower (5,000 vs 10,000 SHU) and its ceiling is higher (30,000 vs. 23,000 SHU), but their median heats are quite close (17,500 SHU for the fish pepper and 16,500 SHU for the serrano.) This range puts it squarely in the middle of medium-heat hot peppers.
But its expanded range sits at a tricky place for eatability. A mild fish pepper is a chili that most people can enjoy. But at its top end, it starts getting to a heat level that is trickier for some heat-sensitive eaters.
What does a fish pepper taste like?
The flavor is a lot like a jalapeño or a serrano – a fresh and bright peppery flavor, with a light amount of bitterness at times. Don’t let the name fool you, there is no “fishiness” to the flavor here.
What does it look like?
There are few chili pepper plants more lovely than the fish pepper plant. The leaves of a single plant can range from full green (and full white) to speckled and/or striated green and white. It’s a looker, and the slightly curved, two to three-inch peppers follow suit with one of the more interesting coloration paths for chilies out there.
When young, the fish pepper is a solid creamy white and milder in flavor. As it ages (and grows in spiciness), it takes on stripes. First, it’s a light green with dark green striations, then orange with dark brown striations. It reaches its full maturity as a solid red pepper. Here it’s the hottest, reaching spiciness levels, as mentioned, near a mild cayenne pepper.
On a single plant, you can see a mix of all of these leaf and pepper variations. It’s no wonder people enjoy using these chilies as ornamental plants for landscaping; they are incredibly appealing.
Cooking with fish peppers
Keep the following in mind when handling and cooking with fish peppers:
- The fish pepper is a go-to chili for light-colored dishes and white sauces. If you’re looking for ingredients that blend right in, the creamy white hue of young fish peppers is perfect for providing heat and flavor without adding color.
- You can use fish peppers in most places you’d use a jalapeño or serrano pepper. The flavor is comparable enough that it’s an easy swap-in. This makes the fish pepper a great chili for medium-heat salsas, particularly if you’re looking to get inventive with your salsa colors.
- Taste a little fish pepper before jumping all-in in your dish. Why? The heat range is wide and straddles a level of spiciness that moves from “family-friendly” to “more for heat lovers.” Get an idea of how hot your fish peppers are prior to overdoing it in the heat department. The spiciness can be sneaky.
- Use gloves when handling fish peppers. Yes, these chilies are only moderately spicy when compared to some of the hottest peppers in the world. But, the capsaicin in these chilies can still cause uncomfortable chili burn. Wear gloves to protect yourself, and read up on how to handle chili burn if it does happen.
Where can you buy fish peppers?
While the fish pepper is making a comeback, they are extremely rare to find outside of farmer’s markets in the mid-Atlantic. You can buy fish pepper seeds online and try your hand at growing them yourself. They do very well in containers.
Fish peppers provide a unique beauty to your garden, and they work quite well in containers. If you have a green thumb, growing your own can provide you with plenty of chilies while adding color to your space.
That said, regional gourmet restaurants are breathing new life into these chilies too. For instance, the Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore offers fish pepper hot sauce and pickled fish peppers in their pantry, as well as oyster sauces made with this chili on their menu. For a hot pepper that nearly “never-was” in the 21st century, it’s exciting to see them come back to life in the kitchen.
Must-read related posts
- Our Hot Pepper List: Discover over 150 chilies that we profile, both culinary and ornamental. Search by heat level, flavor, origin, and more.
- Our Hot Sauce Rankings: We review and rank over 100 hot sauces on flavor, heat balance, usability, and collectibility. Search our list and even filter by the chilies used.
- Does Cooking Peppers Make Them Hotter? Or are they at their fiery peak when raw? Find out.