What Are Bird's Eye Chilies?

Buying, Cooking, and Recipes

Asian bird's eye chili peppers mixed together on display at a market vendor

Omar Osman / Getty Images

Bird's eye chili peppers, sometimes called Thai chilies, are frequently used to add spice in Southeast Asian cuisine. The small chilis grow on small bushes in hot weather climates. Raw, dried, or cooked, the small but potent peppers pack real heat and are used to add spice to dishes or to make fiery sauces.

What Are Bird's Eye Chilies?

Bird's eye chilies are small, thin, pointy peppers that are red when mature. They are green when unripe but can still be eaten, and are sometimes orange or purple depending on maturity. In the case of Thai cuisine, green peppers are typically used in green curries, while hotter, mature red peppers are used in red curries. When fresh, they often have a stem still attached and contain loose, edible seeds that are especially spicy. The peppers are affordable thanks to their low weight and can be used whole, sliced, or seeded and diced.

How to Cook With Bird's Eye Chilies

Bird's eye chili peppers are used extensively in Thai, Vietnamese, Malaysian, and Indonesian cuisines. Fresh or dried chilies are added to salads, stir-fries, curries, sauces, sambals, soups, and marinades. The stems are removed, and the chilies can be left whole, sliced, diced, chopped, or pureed. The seeds are especially spicy and can be removed for less intense heat.

You may want to wear gloves when working with these chilies, especially if you wear contact lenses. Capsaicin, the chemical in the pepper that makes it hot, can stay on your fingers for several hours and really sting when you touch your face, especially the eye area. To guard against unnecessary pain, wear gloves and carefully clean the knife, surfaces, and anything else the cut chilies came in contact with before removing.

Bird's eye chili or Thai Chili at Kota Kinabalu Market
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pepper piri-piri in the cup
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Pork kebabs skewers with sauce and salad.
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Sambal
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Chicken Piri Piri
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What Do Bird's Eye Chilies Taste Like?

Bird's eye chilies are beloved for their fruity, peppery flavor and intense heat. The small peppers pack a real punch: On the Scoville scale, they rate between 50,000 and 100,000 Scoville units. That's 10 times hotter than a jalapeño but half the heat of a habanero. The spice can sneak up on you, as a mature red bird's eye chili can have a delayed potency with the heat building as you eat the dish and then lingering long after you stop eating.

Bird's Eye Chili Recipes

Sliced bird's eye chili peppers are frequently served alongside Thai dishes in a simple sauce of lime juice and fish sauce. The pepper is also used to make various other sauces and condiments, and fresh or dried chilies appear in stir-fries and curries. It's an excellent choice when you want to add heat to a dish without adding bulk or a competing flavor. A little bird's eye chili goes a long way.

Where to Buy Bird's Eye Chilies

You can often find this little chili pepper at your local supermarket year-round, sold individually or in small packages priced per ounce. Sometimes they are labeled as simply "Thai chilies" and can range in color from green to red. If they aren't available at your local grocery, look for them at an Asian market. Choose chilies that are bright and firm without blemishes or wrinkles. Green chilies tend to be slightly milder, while red or purple chilies can have a more developed heat. Dried chilies can be found in some shops or ordered online.

Many people grow Thai chili bushes as an ornamental plant due to its small size, shiny green leaves, and colorful peppers. It can be grown indoors as a potted plant or outdoors during warm-weather months.

Storage

Fresh peppers should be stored in the crisper of your refrigerator until use and will keep for up to two weeks. Avoid rinsing them until just before using to avoid introducing moisture and encouraging decay. To preserve, bird's eye chilies can be pickled or dried. The peppers can technically be frozen, but it is not recommended since the walls of the small peppers are so thin.

Dried chilies and pickled peppers (when properly canned) will last at room temperature for up to a year.

Nutrition and Benefits

Chili peppers are very low in calories and fat and very high in the antioxidant vitamin C. They are also a good source of B-6. Studies are being done about the positive effects of capsaicin, the compound that makes peppers spicy, on certain health problems. While bird's eye chilies are a guilt-free addition to your diet, remember that they are consumed in such small amounts that their health benefits will be minimal.

Bird's Eye Chilies vs. African Bird's Eye Chilies

An almost identical hot pepper in appearance and heat level is used in African cuisine called peri-peri or African bird's eye chili. Piri piri or peri-peri peppers are frequently used to make hot sauce and are less commonly found in the United States. Generally, the two peppers can be used interchangeably in recipes.