Fish peppers are somewhat rare chili peppers of medium heat with fruity, tangy flavor once popular in the American Atlantic region, though they are making a comeback. Learn more about them.
While most chilies are available in plentiful and ample amounts, some are nothing short of incredibly prized possessions. These chilies are either very difficult to grow and tend to or are simply too rare to find in bountiful quantities.
This list includes fish peppers. While fish peppers used to be a necessary staple in almost every household in the Baltimore, the Chesapeake Bay and mid Atlantic region back in the 19th century, they were lost with time and become something of a whispered secret in the culinary community.
How Hot Are Fish Peppers?
On the Scoville Scale, fish peppers vary between the 5,000-30,000 Scoville Heat Units range. The heat intensity is similar to a serrano pepper or cayenne pepper. This means that these are considered to be medium to moderately hot peppers.
The spice level varies considerably depending on the stage maturity. Young, immature fish peppers tend to have a milder heat that is subtle and mellow. Mature peppers have a strong heat intensity.
What Do Fish Peppers Look Like?
Fish peppers grow to around 2-3 inches long each with a gorgeous light green or bright red coloration. The plants are a thing of beauty: they grow with gorgeous green and white leaves with a lot of variation in the colors of the chilies themselves.
The chilies start off with a creamy white hue on their outer shells that gradually becomes greener. As the chili reaches maturity, the green color evolves into a dull and then a fiery red shade that makes it look like a perfect, textbook chili pepper.
The transition between the solid colors are marked with striations: green striations on a white chili and then dark brown striations on an orange chili.
Since different chilies on the same plant are at different stages of development at any given time, the plants are often grown and kept at home as ornamental plants as well in vegetable gardens.
What Are Fish Peppers Used For?
In the past, these peppers were very popularly used in conjunction with seafood. They were used to spice up fish and shellfish dishes such as crab and other seafood. That is where these chilies get their name from: they are called fish peppers because they were mostly used paired with fish and seafood.
Fish houses in the yonder days in the Baltimore to mid Atlantic region would acquire these fish peppers in the very early stages of development. This is when the pepper would still have a white shade instead of its typical bright green or red color that become more apparent in their mature stages.
The goal was to grind up the chili and make it perfectly blend into the sauces they crafted for their seafood based meals.
Other than creamy fish sauces, fish peppers can also be incorporated into meals to add moderate levels of heat and are often used in hot sauces and salsas. You can chop it up, bite it whole, or grind and puree it to make it blend in. Many people also enjoy the sweet and spicy flavor of pickled fish peppers.
What Do Fish Peppers Taste Like?
Those who have tried the fish pepper often compare it to a serrano pepper. It has a similar bright, fruity, and tangy flavor that is very typical and characteristic of a pepper.
Younger chili peppers that still retain their original white color tend to be the creamiest as well as the mildest in flavor and spice level. As the chili matures, the flavor becomes stronger and the heat rises in tandem.
A fully grown, bright red chili pepper has a bold and tangy taste. The outer skin is thick and crunchy with a refreshing bite.
Where to Buy Fish Peppers?
As mentioned, it is extremely difficult to find fresh fish peppers as they are something of a culinary secret. Their use is gradually returning to the common household, however, especially in the mid-Atlantic region.
Your best bet at obtaining these peppers would be to either get access to a farmer’s market in this region or buy some fish pepper seeds online and grow your own.
What is a Fish Pepper Substitute?
Fish peppers taste like a cross between a serrano pepper and a cayenne pepper. To replicate the taste of a typical fish pepper, you can try either of these chilies or combine their flavors together.
Jack Kirchhoff says
I tried twice to grow fish peppers, once from seedlings that I purchased from a farm family in the country near us – they were a sort of informal garden centre with a wide variety of plants and seeds – and once from seeds bought online from a reputable dealer. Both times were disappointments. Neither batch flourished, nor did they come in the multi-colours I was expecting. Or maybe just hoping for. The first batch, from seedlings, came in pale green and developed white streaks, but eventually just went green. The second batch, from seed, behaved and looked like serranos, with just the occasional white patch. I made hot sauce from both of them, and it was fine, but nothing special. I know fish peppers notoriously cross-breed, and I suspect that's what happened to mine, but in any case I've given up on them. There are too many good, useful peppers to waste time and space on something so finicky and unreliable.
I grew them for the first time last year and can confirm that they’re beautiful and tasty, and the plants are incredibly productive. I used them to make the plain fermented hot sauce from this site and your spicy serrano hot sauce, as well as a couple others, and they were all excellent. I’m definitely going to have to try Sean’s citrus hot sauce suggestion this year! Meanwhile, I’m contemplating using the last few in my freezer from last year in a pepper jam.
I have some growing but they have not fruited yet everything else has produced, but they are gorgrous plants.
Tamara K Galbraith says
I grow them every year too. The plants and fruits have such beautiful variegation.
Michael Hultquist - Chili Pepper Madness says
Nice. I'll happily buy some from you!
These are a staple in my garden. They're especially great fermented with habaneros and oranges and turned in to hot sauce.
Michael Hultquist - Chili Pepper Madness says
Very nice. I need to grow some!!