A staple in Asian cuisine…
Japones pepper fast facts:
- Scoville heat units (SHU): 15,000 – 30,000 SHU
- Median heat: 22,500 SHU
- Origin: Japan
- Capsicum species: Annuum
- Jalapeño reference scale: 2 to 12 times hotter
- Use: Culinary
- Size: Approximately 2 inches long, dried
- Flavor: Neutral (peppery)
The japones pepper (a.k.a. santaka pepper or Japanese pepper) is an Asian spice staple often used in Japanese and Chinese cuisines, especially Szechuan and Hunan dishes. They are “fire bringers” – providing heat to a recipe without a lot of flavor complexity that could potentially muddle the overall flavor balance of a dish. The japones pepper’s slim form and moderately high heat also allow the chili to be very useful for liquid infusions, like hot pepper oils and vodkas. They share a similar heat profile to chile de àrbol – to which they are often compared – but the japones is nowhere near as hot as its fiery Asian cousin, the Tien Tsin pepper.
How hot are japones peppers?
With a Scoville heat range of 15,000 to 30,000 Scoville heat units (SHU), Japones peppers sit at the lower end of medium-heat peppers. Comparing to our jalapeño reference point, the japones is two to twelve times hotter. Its median heat falls in the serrano pepper range, with the potential for the pepper to reach the heat of the mildest possible cayenne or tabasco pepper (30,000 SHU).
What do japones peppers look like? Taste like?
Japones peppers are thin, long chilies like cayenne peppers, growing to about two inches in length. They age from green to red, growing in heat as they mature. It’s in their red, fully mature state that they are typically used. When red, they are dried and in that form is how you typically discover them in stores.
In terms of taste: Beyond the heat, there’s little complexity here. The spiciness is the predominant experience, and why the chili is used as a spice to “light up” a dish without affecting the overall flavor profile of the meal.
How can you use these chilies?
Think of japones peppers as more of a spice than a chili, and you’ll discover many ways to use it.
In Asian cuisine, they are added in whole (like Tien Tsin peppers) to provide spiciness to a dish. They are typically removed prior to serving a meal, but if you want your dish extra spicy, they can be left in to add to the eating experience.
And like Tien Tsin and chile de àrbol, they make excellent infusion chilies, spicing up everything from oils to vodkas, as well as many cocktails and citrusy beverages.
Or you can simply crush up these dried chilies and use them as chili flakes or powder to spice up a meal. They make for an excellent, less spicy, cayenne pepper substitute for crushed red pepper.
How do they compare in terms to chile de àrbol or Tien Tsin peppers?
There are similarities, but there are major differences here, too. Think of it this way:
- Japones: Medium heat (15,000 – 30,000 SHU), neutral flavor
- Chile de àrbol: Medium heat (15,000 – 30,000 SHU), complex flavor (nutty, smoky)
- Tien Tsin: Medium-high heat (50,000 – 75,000 SHU), neutral flavor
For Asian cuisine: Japones and Tien Tsin are the best since their neutral flavor allows the other spices in the dishes to shine. Tien Tsin is obviously a major step up in overall heat to the japones (two to five times hotter), so if you want an extra-hot Kung Pao, go Tien Tsin.
As infusions: Tien Tsin and japones are perfect if you just want heat, but no flavor. Chile de àrbol provides a unique infusion experience – nutty and smoky – that many prefer.
Where can you buy japones peppers?
You won’t normally find these chilies at your local supermarket. Look to specialty stores, or, since these are dried chilies, you can easily buy japones peppers online (Amazon). They are typically sold whole. You can also pick up seeds for growing yourself and then drying the chilies for optimal use.
If you’re seeking authentic Asian cuisine spice, the japones pepper is should most definitely be on your radar, especially if Thai or Tien Tsin peppers are simply too spicy. But enjoy these chilies as a cayenne pepper substitute, too. As a flake or powder, it provides a delicious medium heat a tick down from cayenne that may be just what you’re seeking.