What are shishito peppers?
Unlike some other Asian countries, Japan isn’t known for its spicy cuisine. In fact, for all its unique flavor, Japanese food has very little heat at all. And that’s sort of the story of the shishito pepper…except for when it isn’t. Shishitos are bright, flavorful sweet chilies with typically a mild spiciness (50 to 200 Scoville heat units.) But like the Padrón pepper (from which it may likely take its roots), there’s a fiery punch every so often where a shishito breaks the norm and turns up the dial. It makes them a ton of fun to eat, and they have grown immensely popular as a quick-to-cook appetizer or side.
Table of Contents
- What are shishito peppers?
- Shishito pepper fast facts
- How did shishito peppers become native to Japan?
- How hot are shishito peppers?
- What do they look like?
- What do shishito peppers taste like?
- Cooking with shishito peppers
- What’s a good shishito substitute?
- Where can you buy shishito peppers?
- Must-read related posts
Shishito pepper fast facts
|Scoville heat units (SHU)||50 – 200|
|Median heat (SHU)||125|
|Jalapeño reference point||13 to 160 times milder|
|Size||Approximately 2 to 4 inches long, bulbous (sometimes, at end of pepper)|
|Flavor||Sweet, Grassy, Citrusy, Smoky|
How did shishito peppers become native to Japan?
How chili peppers ended up anywhere outside of the Americas is typically a story of exploration centuries ago. It’s likely the shishito has its roots from the Padrón pepper which is native to Spain. They look a lot alike, and, as you’ll see, they share the same quirky heat, though the Padrón is noticeably spicier, reaching at its maximum the spiciness of a mild jalapeño (500 to 2,500 SHU).
The Padrón likely ended up in Spain in the 16th century from South America. From there, the Japanese likely were introduced to the chili. The mix of growing the Padrón in Japanese soil along with selecting the mildest peppers in the lot for propagation, likely converted the taste and heat of the Shishito into what we have today.
How hot are shishito peppers?
With a very mild range on the Scoville scale from 50 to 200 Scoville heat units, the typical shishito is sort of like a rounding error of hotness above a zero-heat bell pepper. Meaning – they aren’t hot at all…most of the time. It’s sort of a warm, pulsing light simmer, very much under the radar. Comparing it to the jalapeño, our reference scale, the typical shishito pepper is 13 to 160 times milder. Though, there’s a catch.
One out of every ten to twenty shishito peppers will rev the heat engine just a little further. They don’t reach even mild jalapeño heat, but it’s enough to catch you by surprise. Padrón chilies have a similar “Russian roulette” tendency, and they both add a level of playfulness to the eating experience that most foods can only dream of.
Think of that random spiciness hitting near the minimum points of either a poblano or Padrón (500 to 1,000 SHU), and you’ll know what to expect. It’s a spiciness that’s still very mild in the scope of the Scoville scale. It just becomes surprising because it’s so out of the blue that it appears. It’s a doubling or tripling (or more) of spiciness compared to the others you’ve eaten.
What do they look like?
The typical shishito is slender, two to four inches in length,thin-walled, and slightly wrinkled. It has a bulbous end to the pepper that some Japanese say looks like a lion’s head. In fact its name speaks to its shape. Shishito is a mash-up of two Japanese words: shishi for “lion” and tōgarashi for “chili pepper”. Think of the giant lion heads in Japanese parades and festivals and you’ll see it.
Shishito peppers do look a lot like Padrón chilies, and they can be mistaken for one another in markets. To tell them apart: Padrón peppers tend to be a little more stocky and a little less wrinkly. Shishito also tend to be slightly shinier. Both tells, though, can be hard to process without both chilies being present.
What do shishito peppers taste like?
The taste is where shishito peppers make up for their near total lack of heat. These are flavorful sweeter chilies: grassy and citrusy with a slight hint of smoke. That citrusy sweetness is not as common on the lower end of the Scoville scale, which makes the shishito’s flavor pretty unique.
Cooking with shishito peppers
With their thin walls, these chilies are growing fast in popularity as grilling peppers. Char-grilled or fried with a little olive oil and sea salt and you have a very tasty appetizer chili with a little bit of extra flair, given the one-in-ten heat jump. Their sweet grassy flavor also makes them an excellent chili for stir-fry, and they also work quite well as a tempura vegetable.
Blistered shishitos is the recipe this chili is most known for, which involved char-grilling the peppers to give them a smoky, earthy flavor. Many restaurants offer this dish as an appetizer or side. Want to learn how to make it? Review our blistered shishitos recipe for the process.
More cooking tips:
- Don’t assume mild means no chili burn. Shishitos are very mild, and you can easily handle them whole with your bare hands. But cutting any chili open, no matter the heat, releases oils containing capsaicin (the compound behind the spiciness.) Even the mildest pepper can cause chili burn discomfort. Use kitchen gloves when handling. And we recommend reading up on treating chili burn prior to handling any pepper.
- Compared to the Padrón, shishitos aren’t as earthy or nutty. So if you’re choosing between the two for grilling, consider these taste variations against the other foods you’re cooking. In once instance, a sweeter, milder chili may make more sense (shishito), in another, something a little spicier and earthier (Padrón).
- With their thin walls, shishito aren’t optimal for stuffing. But that hasn’t stopped some pro chefs from exploring what’s possible here too. For amateur chefs, stuffing these chilies provides plenty of frustration (many ripped chilies while stuffing), so we’d still recommend jumping to a poblano (larger stuffed recipes) or jalapeño (poppers) for any stuffed peppers recipes.
What’s a good shishito substitute?
Your best option is, of course, the Padrón pepper. It’s only slightly hotter, has a similar look, and behaves in the same “Russian roulette” fashion when it comes to a random chili being hotter than others. For more ideas, read our post on the best shishito substitutes.
Where can you buy shishito peppers?
The good news is that, due to their growing popularity, these chilies are popping up in many grocery stores, especially gourmet grocery stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joes. If you’re looking to grow these chilies, you can pick up shishito pepper plants and seeds online and often at your local nursery.
The Seedz brand gets high marks for germination. Plus, the packaging on these seeds is excellent resealable, so if you don't use all your seeds, you simply seal the package back up within the well-marked packaging.
Once you try them, you may find yourself hooked on shishito peppers as a tasty out-of-the-box alternative to the typical vegetable side. And as a quick appetizer, they are a lot of fun to make and eat. Don’t be surprised if they become more of a staple than you first expected.
Must-read related posts
- The Hot Pepper List: The shishito is only one of over 150 chilies we profile in our filterable list. Search by name, heat, flavor, origin, and more.
- Does Cooking Chilies Make Them Hotter? Since shishitos are often served blistered, what does cooking do to their flavor?
- Do Peppers Need To Be Refrigerated? How should you handle them once you’ve brought them home from the store?