Storey’s digital features editor delves into the confusing world of pepper identification.

Bird peppers

I’m a big fan of heat when I eat. I like food with spice that comes on slowly, packs a flavor punch, and fades without leaving my mouth on fire.

This spring, while planning out my patio garden, I was seduced at the nursery by a sweet little pepper plant marked as “Bird’s Eye Pepper.” The description on the tag promised heat that would be “intense but not long-lingering” and a photo of the fruit to come revealed perfectly round, red peppers the size of berries. Hot and cute? A win-win!

And then came that moment every gardener has experienced at least once: when flowers turn into peppers that reveal the plant you’re growing is not what the tag said it would be. For one, my little peps are not round; instead, they’re narrow-bodied, each about an inch long. Muddying the waters further, a Google image search of “bird’s eye pepper” turns up a few different looks — both the small, round pepper I expected as well as the peppers I have growing in my pot. Online sources would lead one to believe that “bird” and “bird’s eye” are interchangeable but that they might also be known by the names “tepin” or “chiltepin” or “Thai chili.” HELP!

To settle my confusion, I turned to Jennifer Trainer Thompson’s Hot Sauce!According to her book, the little round reds (inaccurately) depicted on the tag in my plant are called tepin (a.k.a. chiltepin) peppers, while the ones I now have ripening by the handful every day are, in fact, Thai. The confusion I experienced is well justified, though: while the Thai chile is alternately known as the bird pepper or bird’s eye chile (or phrik khi nu, Thai for “mouse dropping”), “the term bird’s eye chile is also sometimes used for the chiltepin chile, partly due to its shape and also because it’s widely spread by birds.” Sheesh!

Luckily for me, Jennifer Trainer Thompson’s aptly named book has a recipe designed specifically for bird peppers, or bird’s eye peppers, or Thai peppers, or whatever you want to call them. (Of course, you can sub in jalapeños, too.)

Pili Pili

This blistering tropical African hot sauce (pili pili is Swahili for “pepper”) is used as a sauce, a relish, and a marinade. You’ll also see it referred to as piri piri. This sauce is sneaky; at first it doesn’t seem that hot, but then the burn starts running along the roof of your mouth, lofts to the back of your throat, and travels downward.

Makes 2 cups

Ingredients

  • 2 cups loosely packed fresh jalapeño or habanero chiles or bird peppers, stemmed
  • 1 small yellow onion, peeled and quartered
  • ¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon chopped garlic
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon salt

Directions

  1. Add all of the ingredients to a food processor or blender and purée. Transfer the mixture to a skillet and cook over medium heat for a few minutes.
  2. Let cool a bit, then pour into bottles and seal. Refrigerated, the sauce will keep for 2 weeks.

Emily Spiegelman

As Storey’s digital features editor, Emily Spiegelman’s life often ends up imitating books. In addition to knitting, baking, and hosting an exciting array of birds in… See Bio

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