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
Fish pepper fast facts
- Scoville heat units (SHU): 5,000 – 30,000 SHU
- Median heat: 17,500 SHU
- Origin: United States (via the Caribbean)
- Capsicum species: Annuum
- Jalapeño reference scale: Equal heat to 12 times hotter
- Use: Culinary
- Size: Approximately 2 to 3 inches long
- Flavor: Bright
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? What does it taste like?
It’s believed that the fish pepper is a hybrid of the serrano and the cayenne pepper, and the heat fits right in-between these two. With a Scoville scale range between 5,000 and 30,000 Scoville heat units, the fish pepper always equals the heat of a jalapeño, but it can eclipse it easily, topping out at 12 times hotter. This range puts it squarely in the middle of medium-heat hot peppers. The flavor is a lot like a serrano – a fresh and bright pepper flavor.
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 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.
What can be made with these chilies?
With its flavor (and as history has shown) , this is a chili perfect for fish and shellfish. In its white form, it blends seamlessly with cream sauces to deliver an extra kick without standing out. It’s also a terrific chili for medium-heat salsas and hot sauces.
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 (Amazon) and try your hand at growing them yourself. They do very well in containers.
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.