Thai food is notoriously spicy, with a heat that grows and lingers with every bite. This taste comes from Thai chili peppers, one of the most significant spice sources in east Asian cuisine. What are Thai chili peppers, and what are the best ways to use them?
Thai chili peppers are small, very spicy peppers from Southeast Asia. Nine different peppers fall under this category, but the most common is the Bird’s Eye Pepper. Thai chili peppers are easy to grow and are used in curries, sauces, pastes, and stir fries.
In the rest of this article, we’ll tell you all about Thai chili peppers—how they look and taste, how to cook with them, and how to grow them successfully. We’ll also talk about the origin of the peppers. By the end of this post, you’ll know more than you ever thought you needed to know about the beautiful spiciness of Thai chili peppers.
Interesting Facts About Thai Chili Peppers
Thai chili peppers are long lasting, spicy additions to dishes and salads. They’re grown in hot and humid climates but can thrive anywhere if they’re well cared for. The most common type is the Bird’s Eye Chili Pepper, which originates from Southeast Asia, and is usually green or red. These peppers are quite spicy and easily used in Asian dishes.
While the most commonly used Thai chili pepper is Prik Kee Noo (or Bird’s Eye Pepper), there are ten other Thai chili peppers. Each kind of pepper comes from countries in East Asia, all ranging in color and spiciness:
- Prik Ban Chang – a long, mild pepper that is either green or red
- Prik Yuak – a large, light green pepper with a mild, sweet flavor
- Prik Mun – a dark green, thin pepper mainly used for pickling
- Prik Noom – a light green, thin pepper with a bit more spice
- Prik Chee Fah – a small, spicy, red or green pepper
- Prik Lueng – a spicy orange pepper that is rarely used
- Prik Jinda – a spicy red or green pepper with a fresh, earthy flavor
- Prik Kee Noo Suan – the most popular: it is a small, very spicy red or green pepper
- Prik Kaleang – the spiciest and most varied pepper, which comes in multiple colors
- Prik Kee Nok – another variety of the Bird’s Eye chili pepper
- Prik Haeng – dried or dehydrated pepper of any variety.
While all of these peppers are common in Thai recipes and restaurants, the Bird’s Eye Pepper is the most popular Thai chili pepper, which is the pepper the rest of this post will focus on.
Bird’s Eye peppers are generally small, ranging from 0.7 to 3 inches (2 to 7 cms.) in length. They tend to be cone-shaped, with a smooth, waxy skin. The inside is lighter in color than the outside, with cream-colored seeds in the center. Most Bird’s Eye Thai chili peppers are red when they’re ripe, with a few varieties that come in green, yellow, and orange.
All chili peppers originally grew only in Central and South America. After the Columbian exchange (when European explorers traveled to America and brought back new plants and products), chilis moved quickly throughout Europe and Asia. By the 16th century, chili plants were being used and reinvented throughout the world.
The specific breed that became Thai chilis originated in Southeast Asia, specifically throughout Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. These areas took the peppers from the Americas and created their versions of varying spice, color, and temperament.
The Prik Kee Noo variety of Thai chili peppers is commonly called Bird’s Eye Peppers because they are spread naturally by birds who can’t sense spice levels and naturally pick and eat them. Their name literally translates to Mouse Dropping peppers because of their small size (although we can see why Bird’s Eye became a more popular nickname).
Thai chili peppers are scorching hot but by no means the spiciest peppers on the planet. Bird’s Eye peppers have a heat rating of between 80,000 to 100,000 Scoville heat units (SHUs) on the Scoville scale, depending on the pepper. This makes them about 30 times spicier than Jalapeño peppers and nearly as spicy as Habanero peppers.
These Thai chili peppers are nowhere near the Carolina Reaper, which tops the scale at 2 million SHUs. They also fall behind Ghost peppers on the list but near the top after those two spice giants. Although Thai peppers have a very similar taste to Serrano peppers, they’re about eight times as spicy.
In addition to their spicy flavor, Thai chili peppers do have some health benefits. Because these peppers are high in Vitamins A and C, they’re suitable for improved eyesight and collagen growth. They’re also common in detoxes because of their anti-inflammatory properties. Like many other vegetables and peppers, Thai chili peppers can improve your health if used in tandem with a healthy diet.
Cooking With Thai Chili Peppers
Thai chili peppers are an excellent addition to any dish. They can be used raw (in salads or marinades) or cooked (stir fries, curries, and pastes). They can also be dried for spices and pickled for slaws. If you want to spice things up in the kitchen, look no further than a Bird’s Eye pepper for subtle flavor and (of course) intense and lingering heat.
When ripe, a Thai chili pepper has a smooth and waxy exterior with a sharp crunch. The first bite of a Bird’s Eye pepper is crunchy and soft on the inside, with a fruity and earthy flavor. That’s just the first bite, though. The rest of the eating experience changes drastically once the pepper’s heat level kicks in.
The pepper’s taste is subtle and delicious on its own, but the extreme spiciness soon overpowers the fresh taste. The heat builds and lingers in a Thai chili pepper—enjoy the milder flavors on the first bite because soon enough, you won’t be able to taste anything but an earthy spice! The red and green Thai chili peppers taste about the same, despite their differing colors.
You can add Thai chili peppers to any dish you think needs a lot more spice. Traditionally, they have been used in Asian cuisine; the bright red of the pepper gives Thai red curry its color, and regularly livens up stir fries, salads, sautés, and other dishes. They can be used raw for a spicy punch or cooked to spread the taste and heat throughout the meal.
The most common use for a Thai chili pepper is in sauces and pastes. When crushed or blended, they add spice and flavor to a paste, which you can then utilize in any dish you want. Using the seeds and meat for dressings and marinades is another more flexible way to use the peppers (especially if they’ve been in the fridge for a while and don’t have the perfect fresh crunch).
Dried chilis are often used in dishes as well. They keep a lot longer than fresh peppers and can be ground into a powder for spice mixes and recipes. You can also use them for a rub on meats and in marinades. Ground pepper can be more convenient—if a little less pungent—than a pepper paste or fresh pepper.
Cooking with chili peppers can be precisely what you want it to be. Fresh, cooked, sauteed, ground, and dried peppers are all used regularly in cooking. You can add them to the classic dishes like curry or stir fry, or you can make the peppers your own by adding them to your favorite dishes.
However, you must stay safe while cooking with hot peppers—the capsaicin (spicy oil) in the peppers can severely burn the skin or the eyes. Wear gloves and wash your hands thoroughly after you finish cutting them or cooking with them. If any of the pepper juice does get on your skin (or in your eyes), don’t use water! Rinse the affected area out with whole milk to deactivate the hot oils.
Fresh Thai chili peppers are the spiciest version of chili peppers. The oils within the pepper are just ripened and haven’t been dulled by aging or drying. You can add fresh sliced chili peppers to salads or tacos. You can also mix them into sauces or use them as a colorful (and spicy) garnish.
As always, make sure you’re wearing gloves and not touching your face when you’re cutting or handling peppers. Even if you eat them plain (pepper eating contests can be fun as long as you don’t burn your mouth!), be very careful about washing your hands and any affected surfaces when you’re finished.
Cooked Thai chili peppers are incredibly common in sauces and pastes. To make a sauce or paste from a Thaichili pepper, sauté the pepper in oil. You can then blend it with other ingredients or crush it into a pulp. These sauces can be added to rice, simmered with vegetables and meat to make a curry, or as part of another recipe.
Another popular way to cook chili peppers is in a roasted vegetable medley. Chop the peppers small and mix them with whatever other vegetables you want. Toss with olive oil and salt and bake in the oven for about twenty minutes. Roasted veggies go great with meat and rice dishes or a sauce.
Cooked Bird’s Eye peppers are the most versatile way to eat peppers. With a paste, marinade, or sauce, you can add the peppers’ spice to any dish you want. You can even make a dressing or dip out of crushed peppers. Once you decide to put a cooked pepper into a sauce, the cooking possibilities are unlimited.
Drying peppers is easy. The most basic method is to hang your peppers on a string (or lay them out in rows on a wire rack) and leave them in a cool, dry place. After several weeks, the peppers should be dry enough to grind into powder or use in soups.
If you don’t have as much time, you can dry peppers in the oven within a few hours. Cut the peppers in half lengthwise and place them in rows on baking sheets. At a low temperature (under 140 degrees Fahrenheit or 60 degrees Celsius), bake the peppers until they’re completely dried out, turning them every few minutes. You can leave the oven slightly ajar if you’re worried about them burning.
The most common use for dried peppers is a ground up seasoning mix. Chili powder can be used in soups, on meats, and even in desserts (try adding a little chili powder to your brownie mix and enjoy the sweet and spicy combo!). If you don’t want to grind your dried chilis, you can use them to spice up soups, make hot sauces, and mix them into pasta or rice dishes instead.
If you want the same spiciness as a Bird’s Eye pepper but don’t have access to the peppers themselves, you can use different peppers. The best substitutes are the Scotch Bonnet pepper, the Jamaican Yellow Mushroom pepper, or the Habanero pepper. These are each the same level of spiciness as the Bird’s Eye and have subtle differences in flavor.
However, you can also find a substitute that tastes very similar to the Bird’s Eye, albeit a lot milder. Serrano peppers have the same earthy and subtle flavor, without the intense heat of a Thai chili pepper. If you like the taste of the Bird’s Eye but can’t handle the spice, you might be able to start with a Serrano!
Some chili pepper leaves are not safe to eat, even boiled. However, Bird’s Eye peppers are not one of them! You can eat the leaves as long as they’re boiled and cooked. Although the leaves are small, they can be added to soups or used as wraps for other vegetables. The flavor added is subtle, but if you want to use the entire plant, you can!
If you love Thai chili peppers, you might notice that they’re sometimes hard to find in grocery stores or specialty stores. You can buy dried Thai chili peppers at Asian markets or online, and in season it’s a bit easier to find fresh peppers. However, the best way to ensure you have a steady influx of fresh peppers is to grow a Thai chili pepper plant yourself.
Pepper plants are fairly straightforward to grow (and surprisingly hard to kill). Although they thrive in hot and humid climates, they have been known to withstand frosts and survive in temperatures far below freezing (although not for very long). If you take good care of your pepper plant, you can harvest peppers from it for several years.
Thai chili pepper plants need lots of sunlight and heat. These are the most critical parts of growing a pepper plant—if you live somewhere that has winters, make sure that you can still give your pepper plant an adequate amount of heat in the cold months. Pepper plants also need regular watering and might need pruning between fruit-bearing seasons.
Chili pepper plants grow the best in hot, damp climates but can be grown in any environment if they’re taken care of properly. If you live in a place with winter, you’ll need a greenhouse or a warm indoor space with sunlight access, especially to overwinter your plants between productive summers.
If you’re planting peppers outside, make sure to plant them in neat rows with a little bit of distance (just under two feet) between them. This way, the plants can grow taller and not crowd each other. Outside or in, give your plants a well-draining seed starter to grow in, and water them regularly. The most important part of growing pepper plants is making sure they have enough sun.
Bird’s Eye pepper plants are small enough that they can thrive in a pot their entire lifespan. This is convenient if you want to grow a pepper plant and don’t want to invest in a whole greenhouse. As long as you keep your pots in the sun and move them inside when a frost sets in, you should be able to grow a thriving Bird’s Eye pepper plant.
Chili pepper plants take about three to four months in total to grow. The entire growing season is 100-130 days, with germination, blooming, and fruit production. When the peppers are ripe, they usually ripen on the plant for two to three weeks and can continue to mature for 10-14 days once picked.
Because of the length of the growing seasons, it’s best to plant them six to eight weeks before the last frost. This way, the summer months will give the peppers the maximum amount of sunshine and heat as they mature, and you can harvest them before the weather gets cold again and it’s time to overwinter your chili pepper plant.
Bird’s Eye peppers are perennial plants. Thai chilis are a member of the capsicum annuum family of peppers, the longest living pepper species. These perennials last much longer than their annual counterparts but do not live indefinitely.
Most Bird’s Eye pepper plants continue to grow and produce peppers for at least two or three years. A Thai chili plant can last more than five years if it’s well taken care of and pruned down during the winter months. Overwintering a plant is relatively easy and will help your plant rest and recover for a more fruitful season.
Bird’s Eye peppers, like all pepper plants, are self-pollinating. This means that their flowers are complete and have both the stamen and pistil (the male and female parts) in the same blossom. Although bees and wasps will increase the plants’ productivity, even a slight breeze will successfully pollinate a Thai chili pepper plant.
Self-pollinating plants are ideal for indoor gardens and plants in colder climates. They don’t need bees or other flowers to complete their reproductive cycle. As pollinators such as bees are becoming more endangered, having plants pollinate themselves is a massive blessing for gardeners.
Thai chili plants are small bushes, so they don’t need extra support other than the soil or the pot. If you plant a large row of chili plants, you might need separators between the row and the different parts of your garden, but it really shouldn’t be an issue.
Planting your pepper plant in a suitable pot is crucial to the life of the plant. If the pot isn’t big enough, the roots won’t have enough space to grow, and the plant will be smaller. The water levels could also be affected by a poorly sized pot. A full-sized Thai chili pepper plant is about a foot tall, so the ideal size pot should be at least five gallons (larger if you live in a warm climate).
Thai chili peppers thrive in warmer climates with little or no snowfall. They need at least six to eight hours of direct sunlight a day and supplemental light if that sunlight isn’t available. Keeping your pots in the sunshine all summer or planting them in an unshaded bed is an excellent way to make sure they’re getting enough energy.
Water your plants around one to two inches per week to ensure they’re getting the moisture they need but not being overwatered. If it’s a scorching week, you can water them more. It helps to water them immediately after you plant them so the roots can attach and start to spread in the soil.
Some Thai chili varieties can grow up to two yards tall in ideal circumstances. Bird’s Eye peppers, however, stay relatively small. They grow to a little over a foot high, with about the same width. This is an ideal height to keep the plants in a large pot, which is easily moveable and contains all the nutrients the plant needs.
Even though they’re small bushes, Thai chili pepper plants can produce over two hundred peppers per plant. Every harvest will give you at least a hundred peppers of varying sizes, which can be dried, cooked, or frozen to last longer. A single chili pepper plant should produce enough peppers to last until the next growing season.
Chili peppers should be harvested as they become ripe. Once you pick a pepper, a new bloom will sprout, and more peppers will eventually grow. It’s easy to pull a ripened pepper off a plant. When a Thai chili pepper loses its natural green color and becomes a bright red, it’s ready to be picked and eaten!
Picking peppers as they ripen is an excellent way to maximize the production of your bush. The chilis will not all ripen at once. This naturally prevents the bush from becoming overcrowded and allows a natural turnover of peppers in the varying stages of blooming to ripeness. A chili pepper harvest will last for a little over two weeks.
Thai chili peppers should stay fresh for up to two weeks if kept in the fridge’s crisper section. When they’re raw, they must be kept in a cool, dry place to prevent rot. Once the peppers are cooked, they will store for a little longer but should still be eaten within a week or two from cooking.
The peppers will eventually go soft, but you can also put them in the freezer (in freezer-safe plastic bags). Frozen peppers should be cooked when thawed because they’ll be a little mushy, but you can use them just like fresh or dried peppers.
Dried peppers last much longer than fresh peppers. They’re not as crunchy and taut, but you can still use them in sauces and dishes, just like the newly picked peppers. In an airtight container, dried chili peppers will last up to three months in storage. They should be stored in a dry place (such as a pantry or cupboard).
When storing hot peppers, it’s crucial to keep them away from children. Always keep them in plastic bags or airtight containers to prevent any oils inadvertently ending up on someone’s hands or in their eyes.
Whether you plan on making curries, stir fries, or salads, the Bird’s Eye pepper will be a great (if very spicy) addition to your recipe. They’re easy to grow and take care of and can produce peppers for several years. Thai chili peppers genuinely live up to their fame as extraordinarily spicy and delicious.