What Are Bird's Eye Chiles?

Buying, Cooking, and Recipes

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

Omar Osman / Getty Images

Bird's eye chile peppers, sometimes called Thai chiles, are frequently used to add spice in Southeast Asian cuisine. The small chiles 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 Chiles?

Bird's eye chiles 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 Chiles

Bird's eye chile peppers are used extensively in Thai, Vietnamese, Malaysian, and Indonesian cuisines. Fresh or dried chiles are added to salads, stir-fries, curries, sauces, sambals, soups, and marinades. The stems are removed, and the chiles 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 chiles, 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 chiles came in contact with before removing.

Bird's eye chile or Thai chile at Kota Kinabalu Market
Nora Carol Photography / Getty Images
Pepper piri-piri in a cup
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Pork kebabs skewers with sauce and salad
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Sambal in a white dish
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Chicken piri piri on a black plate with a fork and spoon
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What Do Bird's Eye Chiles Taste Like?

Bird's eye chiles 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 chile 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 Chile Recipes

Sliced bird's eye chile 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 chiles 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 chile goes a long way.

Where to Buy Bird's Eye Chiles

You can often find this little chile pepper at your local supermarket year-round, sold individually or in small packages priced per ounce. Sometimes they are labeled as simply "Thai chiles" 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 chiles that are bright and firm without blemishes or wrinkles. Green chiles tend to be slightly milder, while red or purple chiles can have a more developed heat. Dried chiles can be found in some shops or ordered online.

Many people grow Thai chile 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 chiles 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 chiles and pickled peppers (when properly canned) will last at room temperature for up to a year.

Nutrition and Benefits

Chile 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 chiles 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 Chiles vs. African Bird's Eye Chiles

An almost identical hot pepper in appearance and heat level is used in African cuisine called peri-peri or African bird's eye chile. 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.