What are Tien Tsin peppers?
You may know Tien Tsin peppers by another, more descriptive name – Chinese red peppers. These are the surprisingly hot (50,000 to 75,000 Scoville heat units), dried chilies that you sometimes find in you Kung Pao chicken or one of many other Szechuan or Hunan dishes. They’re popular to use as a flavoring spice that is removed prior to serving (unless you order your meal extra hot). The Tien Tsin pepper’s small body, long form, and big heat also make them terrific infusion chilies for oils, vodkas, and other beverages.
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Tien Tsin pepper fast facts
- Scoville heat units (SHU): 50,000 – 75,000 SHU
- Median heat: 62,500 SHU
- Origin: China
- Capsicum species: Annuum
- Jalapeño reference scale: 6 to 30 times hotter
- Use: Culinary
- Size: Approximately 1 to 2 inches long, dried
- Flavor: Neutral (peppery)
These chilies seem extremely hot in Chinese food. How hot are Tien Tsin peppers really?
They do seem extremely hot, but in context to other chilies, they fall in the high-end of the medium range of the Scoville scale. They have a similar floor to Thai peppers (50,000 Scoville heat units or SHU), but their ceiling isn’t quite as high, reaching 75,000 SHU where Thai peppers can jump to 100,000 SHU. In terms of our jalapeño reference point, the Tien Tsin ranges from six to thirty times hotter than a jalapeño. That’s nothing to sneeze at, but certainly nowhere near the likes of a habanero.
So why do they sometimes taste surprisingly hot? Tien Tsin chilies are often used whole in dishes, with seeds intact. And it’s a chili’s seeds, along with the membrane, that contain a large part of its heat. Remove the seeds and membrane (or pith), and your range of spiciness jumps well down. So if you bite into one of those Chinese red peppers in your stir fry, you’re getting the full force of the pepper’s potential heat.
What do Tien Tsin peppers taste like and look like?
Think small cayenne peppers with extra pop and you’ll be on the right path for both looks and tastes. Tien Tsin chilies are branch-like thin, one to two inches in length. They age from green to a vibrant red, at which time they are picked and dried for their typical usage
The Tien Tsin pepper’s slimness is very reminiscent of cayenne, and it has a neutral, almost musty, flavor behind the heat similar to cayenne too. This is not a complex chili in terms of flavor; the heat is the star here. And that certainly colors how it is used in the kitchen.
How can you use these chilies?
Because of the lack of complexity in flavor in Tien Tsin peppers, these chilies are mainly used as a heat source. As mentioned, they are typically used as a spice for Asian cuisine, particularly Hunan and Szechuan dishes. Here, they are often used whole to spice a dish during the cooking process, then removed like you would bay leaves.
Because of their slim, short shape, they also make exceptional chilies for infusions. It’s a significant step up in heat from chile de àrbol for use in creating chili oils or hot pepper vodkas.
Like cayenne, too, Tien Tsin peppers are excellent chilies to crush into flakes or powders to use as a spicy condiment. They do have a similar taste to cayenne, so if you’re looking to make your own hotter version of red pepper flakes, these chilies make a terrific base.
Where can you buy Tien Tsin peppers?
Shop specialty stores to find dried Tien Tsin peppers as you won’t find them at your mainstream supermarket. Or simply purchase them online (Amazon), both the dried chilies as well as seeds.
If you’re looking for authentic heat for your Hunan or Szechuan meals, then Tien Tsin peppers are a must. But don’t pigeon hole these chilies to only Chinese meals. Try them for infusion recipes, especially if you’re looking for an extra kick of spice. These Chinese red peppers will deliver.