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Are Shishito Peppers Hot?

Numerous Shishito Peppers on a cutting board
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You’ve probably seen shishito peppers at the grocery store or featured as an appetizer at trendy restaurants frequented by fedora-wearers and wondered, are shishito peppers hot?

They look similar to serrano peppers, which are incredibly hot, so I can see how you would think that. The truth is they aren’t really that hot until you bite into one that is.

I would say 1 out of 10 shishito peppers are considered hot or spicy. How hot are we talking? The hottest Shishito peppers I’ve consumed I would guestimate to be a little hotter than your basic Jalapeno.

There’s no way to tell if you’re going to get a hot one or not. It’s the vegetable version of Russian Roulette (I hate this analogy but it’s the only one that comes to mind) and for those of you that are sensitive to spice, you might not want to play the game.

So, why are shishito peppers this way? Good question.

In this post, I will detail the mystery of the random hot shishito pepper, as well as discuss what shishito peppers are, where they come from, what to do with them, and how to buy them.

A close-up of a Shishito Pepper showing its natural wrinkled skin
The skin of the Shishito pepper has a natural wrinkled appearance.

What Is a Shishito Pepper?

Shishito peppers are small, slightly curved chile peppers with a skin that is shiny yet somewhat wrinkled in appearance. Most varieties sold are green, but they will turn red if left to mature.

Noting the shiny exterior of a Shishito Pepper
The shiny exterior of a Shishito Pepper, I wonder what the inside looks like?

They have a very mild level of spiciness, averaging between 100 to 1,000 Scoville units. However, approximately 1 out of 10 peppers will be spicy. More on this in a bit.

Shishito peppers have a bright, slightly-sweet bell pepper taste with a touch of spiciness that will linger on your tongue.

The Shishito pepper, like all peppers, can trace its roots back to an area around southern Brazil and Bolivia.

By the time humans arrived in the Americas, estimated to be as early as 25,000 years ago, some 25 species of peppers already existed in South America.

It is believed that peppers became domesticated by about 3300 B.C., eventually becoming a major part of the cuisine of the Mayan and Incan empires.

A Shishito Pepper cut in half, revealing the inside membrane and seeds.
The same Shishito Pepper cut in half, revealing the inside membrane and seeds.

Spanish and Portuguese explorers in the 15th and 16th centuries encountered chili peppers while exploring (and pillaging) the ancient New World of Mexico, Central, and South America.

These early explorers are responsible for dispersing many varieties of chili peppers, including the Shishito, or a variation of, to Japan in the mid-16th century.

These peppers got their name because their tips resembled the head of a lion, shishi in Japanese.

The head of a lion? There must’ve been a lot of sake going around. And how does this name stick for the rest of eternity?

 

A pile of Shishito Peppers
Photo of Shishitos from……another angle!

Shishito Peppers and Padron Peppers

A lot of people that are familiar with Shishito peppers are confused when introduced to Padron peppers, and vice-versa. This is because they are incredibly similar-looking.

Considering the fact that there are only five domesticated Capsicum (pepper) species with thousands of varieties, you will invariably run into similar peppers that developed independently of each other.

Padron peppers get their name from the city of Padron in northwestern Spain. They are also referred to as “Herbon” peppers in some areas.

Padron peppers are said to be slightly hotter than Shishitos but this can vary greatly due to growing conditions. It is said that 2 out of 10 Padron peppers will be spicy compared to the 1 in 10 for Shishitos.

The way to tell them apart visually is Shishitos are generally slimmer throughout their body while the Padron peppers will be wider at their top, gradually tapering to the tip.

Padron peppers tend to look stubbier in appearance than Shishito peppers is an easier way to explain the difference between the two.

These are general guidelines and there can be wild fluctuations in appearance due to growing conditions.

As far as taste, Padron peppers will have an earthier flavor to the Shishito peppers, which will have a brighter, slightly-sweet taste.

This is all relative of course. Some people would consider the Padron peppers to be sweeter than the Shishitos.

Why Are Some Shishito Peppers Hotter Than Others

The randomness of heat levels in Shishito peppers could be due to certain traits that are known to produce peppers with higher capsaicin.

Peppers that are older, as well as those that have endured more stress, will have a higher capsaicin probability.

Is this something that is contributing to the 1 in 10 scenarios with Shishito peppers? More evidence is needed. I am curious and will keep digging if there is a definitive answer.

Can You Eat Shishito Peppers Raw?

Yes, you can eat raw Shishito peppers. You can eat them whole or cut them into rings and add them to salads or any other side dish.

However, Shishitos are best when they are cooked, preferably over high heat, to bring out their flavor compounds fully. The most popular preparations are fried in a pan with olive oil or skewered and grilled over an open flame.

A bag of pre-packaged Shazam! Shishito Peppers
Having wracked their brains after 8 hours in the conference room, Larry, the most junior copywriter, blurts out, “What about Shazam!?” Larry, that’s why we hired you.

Why All of a Sudden Are Shishito Peppers Popular?

Shishito peppers started to gain a more widespread following with the expansion of Izakaya restaurants around the world.

Relatively inexpensive, the peppers are often prepared with a soy marinade, giving them a salty bite. To counteract the saltiness, Izakaya patrons will consume more beer and sake as the theory goes.

Their cousins across the Atlantic, the Padron pepper, assumes the same role in tapas bars in Portugal and Spain.

I would guess that the expansion of the internet along with hipster-foodie culture definitely has played a role in their explosion in popularity.

Shishito peppers have been sold in Asian markets for years but have recently caught the attention of large retail chains and their suppliers.

You’ll find most of the Shishito peppers in grocery stores in the United States are sourced from growing operations in Mexico. (see Shazam! peppers above)

Suddenly Shishitos

That would be my brand of Shishito peppers, not that you asked. There are possible copyright implications with that one from Betty Crocker and Brooke Shields.

Closer shot of Shishitos
That is a pig-shaped cutting board in case you were wondering.

How Much Do Shishito Peppers Cost and When Are They Available?

Shishito Peppers are relatively inexpensive. The price is dependent on where you get them of course. Typically an 8-ounce bag will cost around $3.

They are available year-round due to the expansion of growing areas including increased farmland cultivation as well as greenhouse and hothouse operations.

How to Select Shishito Peppers

Even though Shishito peppers will be naturally gnarled with creases, older peppers will be wrinkled and dry.

A good way to tell if they’ve been on the display for a while is if the outside of the pepper has lost some of its shininess. This, coupled with smaller wrinkles is a sign that the Shishitos are old.

If that is all they have on the display either politely ask the produce person if they have more or just roll with it and buy them. A lot of fruit and vegetables are thrown out that are still good but not visually appealing anymore.

How to Prepare Shishito Peppers

Cooking Shishito Peppers are extremely easy. A fast way is in a hot pan with some olive oil and salt. You can also skewer them and grill them on the bbq.

Here is a traditional marinade and cooking method for Shishitos:

  • 1/2 cup Soy Sauce
  • 2 tablespoons Sake (or more if it’s the weekend)
  • 1/2 to 1 pound of Shishito Peppers
  1. Whisk together the soy sauce and sake, this is what you’ll brush on the Shishitos while they grill.
  2. Cut the stem end of the Shishitos off if you’re fancy, you can leave them on as well.
  3. Lay the Shishitos down and skewer them twice, one skewer toward the stem end and the other towards the tip. Fit as many Shishitos on the skewer as you want.
  4. Grill the Shishitos over medium heat for one minute, then turn and brush with marinade.
  5. Grill the Shishitos until the desired doneness, turning over and brushing with the marinade every 30 seconds. Usually, 3 minutes of total time is all it takes. They’re ready to eat!

Final Thoughts

Shishito Peppers are indeed a tasty snack when grilled with salt or soy sauce. They’ve long been a favorite appetizer in Japan. Like most delicious things they’ve made their way into the mainstream.

This is a good thing. There are plenty of tasty fruits and vegetables that are relatively obscure for one reason or another.

When you are introduced to something new that’s delicious, it makes life a little more fun and interesting.

Imagine a life eating the same jalapeno-popper over and over again. Not good.

No need to worry because, SHAZAM! , Shishito Peppers are here to break the monotony.

I’ll continue to enjoy them even if the guy at the table next to me, dressed like a 19th-century pharmacist (Alchemist?), enjoys them as well. Common ground, a common ground.

 

 

 

 

 

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