Fish Pepper Guide: Heat, Flavor, Pairings, And More

Fish peppers are a type of chili pepper that originated in the Caribbean and were popular among the African-American community in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States, particularly in Maryland and Pennsylvania, during the 19th and early 20th centuries. They are known for their unique striped (or variegated) foliage and peppers, which change color as they mature from white, to cream, to green, and finally red. The peppers are typically between 2 to 3 inches long. They are considered medium-heat peppers, ranging 5,000 to 30,000 on the Scoville scale, giving it a median heat similar to a serrrano pepper. They also have a bright (sometimes bitter) bite that’s like a green serrano or jalapeño as well.

The name “fish pepper” is derived from its traditional use in seafood dishes. The white immature peppers were often used in cream-based sauces and dishes, as they blended in well and did not alter the color of the dish while still providing a spicy kick. The fish pepper fell out of common use for a time, but has seen a resurgence in recent years due to the efforts of seed savers and heirloom vegetable enthusiasts.

Fish peppers, of various ages, on the vine. Note the striped appearance.

Fish pepper fast facts

Scoville heat units (SHU)5,000 – 30,000
Median heat (SHU)17,500
Jalapeño reference pointEqual heat to 12 times hotter
Capsicum speciesAnnuum
OriginUnited States (via the Caribbean)
SizeApproximately 2 to 3 inches long
FlavorBright, Bitter

What’s the history of the fish pepper?

This is one of those chilies that became part of a region’s fabric, at least for a period. The fish pepper was brought to the mid-Atlantic region—it’s believed—from the Caribbean in the late 19th century (1870s). The African-American communities of the Chesapeake Bay area and major cities of the region (Baltimore and Philadelphia in particular) took to the chili and made it a culinary staple for oyster and crab houses. That’s where the name for this chili was coined.

But this chili pepper was more of a cooking secret than something well-documented. These fish houses typically used the white-colored versions of the chili (very early in the chili’s maturation process), so that the pepper blended perfectly into creamy sauces. That kept the fish pepper low-profile in meals. There were few (if any) recipes written down, just the knowledge passed down orally from generation to generation.

As urbanization in the mid-Atlantic spread in the early 20th century, the fish pepper nearly became a casualty of the changing times. With few written recipes and an evolving cultural landscape, its use in the region slipped. In fact, it essentially disappeared.

It was only in the 1940s that it was saved from being an after-thought on the Scoville scale. A Pennsylvanian named Horace Pippin, while seeking some bees for an arthritis folk remedy, exchanged a selection of seeds to a beekeeper name H. Ralph Weaver. In the bunch were fish pepper seeds.

These seeds stayed in the Weaver private collection until H. Ralph passed down the seeds to his grandson William Woys Weaver. In 1995—nearly a century after the top of its popularity— the fish pepper was reintroduced by William to the public. That’s quite a journey back to culinary relevance.

How hot are fish peppers?

Some believe that the fish pepper is a hybrid of the serrano (10,000 to 23,000 Scoville heat units or SHU) and the cayenne pepper (30,000 to 50,000 SHU), and the heat fits right in-between these two. The fish pepper has a Scoville heat range from 5,000 to 30,000 Scoville heat units.

Compared to our jalapeño reference point, fish peppers always equal the heat of a jalapeño (2,500 to 8,000 SHU), but it can eclipse it easily, topping out at 12 times hotter. It’s more in line with its parent, the serrano chili. Its floor is lower (5,000 vs 10,000 SHU) and its ceiling is higher (30,000 vs. 23,000 SHU), but their median heats are quite close (17,500 SHU for the fish pepper and 16,500 SHU for the serrano.) This range puts it squarely in the middle of medium-heat hot peppers.

But its expansive range sits at a tricky place for eatability. A mild fish pepper is a chili that most people can enjoy since it’s a heat similar to a jalapeño. Though at its hottest, it reaches the heat of a cayenne chili, which for many is too hot for everyday use as a fresh pepper.

Fish pepper
The many colors (and stripes) of fish peppers

What does it look like and taste like?

There are few chili pepper plants more colorful than the fish pepper plant. The leaves of a single plant can range from full green (and full white) to speckled and/or striated green and white. It’s a looker, and the slightly curved, two to three-inch peppers follow suit with one of the more interesting coloration paths for chilies out there.

When young, the fish pepper is a solid creamy white and milder in flavor. As it ages (and grows in spiciness), it takes on stripes. First, it’s a light green with dark green striations, then orange with dark brown striations. It reaches its full maturity as a solid red pepper. Here it’s the hottest, reaching spiciness levels, as mentioned, near a mild cayenne pepper. On a single plant, you can see a mix of all of these leaf and pepper variations. It’s no wonder people enjoy using these chilies as ornamental plants for landscaping; they are incredibly appealing.

The flavor is a lot like a jalapeño or a serrano – a fresh and bright peppery flavor, with a light amount of bitterness at times. Don’t let the name fool you, there is no “fishiness” to the flavor here.

Cooking with fish peppers

As a general rule, any recipe where you’d use a serrano pepper, a fish pepper can work just as well. This also includes any jalapeño recipes, as serranos are often used as a step up in heat for recipes featuring the jalapeño. Fish peppers can do the same. In this way, they are versatile.

More tips:

  • The fish pepper is a go-to chili for light-colored dishes and white sauces. If you’re looking for ingredients that blend right in, the creamy white hue of young fish peppers is perfect for providing heat and flavor without adding color.
  • Fish peppers are a fun twist to salsas. With all their varying colors and stripes, this chili can bring any fresh salsa to visual life.
  • Taste a little fish pepper before jumping all-in for your dish. Why? The heat range is wide and straddles a level of spiciness that moves from “family-friendly” to “more for heat lovers.” Get an idea of how hot your fish peppers are prior to overdoing it in the heat department. The spiciness can be sneaky, and that’s even true for chilies from the same plant.
  • Use gloves when handling fish peppers. Yes, these chilies are only moderately spicy when compared to some of the hottest peppers in the world. But, the capsaicin in these chilies can still cause uncomfortable chili burn. Wear gloves to protect yourself, and read up on how to handle chili burn if it does happen.
  • The serrano is the best overall fish pepper substitute. As the serrano has a comparable bright bite and median heat, they are easy to swap in and out of recipes. Note, this does not consider color. If you’re looking for a white chili pepper to disappear into cream sauces, you have options.

Common fish pepper ingredient pairings

You’ll find that this chili is paired with many common sauce herbs and spices, given it’s so prevalent in cream-based sauces. Here are some of the more popular pairings.

  • Lemon: The citrusy tang of lemons complements the heat of the fish pepper, balancing out the spice. This pairing is often used in fish dishes, providing a fresh and zesty flavor profile.
  • Onions: A common pairing in sauces, onions provide a sweet, pungent flavor that pairs well with the bright bite received from the chilies. And, as they are translucent when cooked, they also work well in white sauces (like white fish peppers do.)
  • Garlic: Garlic’s robust flavor pairs well with the spice of fish pepper, adding depth to the dish. This combination is common in stir-fries and sauces, where the garlic’s savory notes accentuate the pepper’s heat.
  • Cilantro: Cilantro’s distinctive, slightly citrusy flavor pairs well with fish pepper’s heat, creating a vibrant and refreshing combination. This pairing is often found in Mexican and Asian cuisine.
  • Cumin: Cumin’s earthy and warm flavor complements the hot and fruity taste of fish pepper. This combination is commonly used in chili and curry dishes, adding complexity and depth.
  • Thyme: Thyme’s subtle, dry aroma and slightly minty flavor balance the heat of fish pepper, resulting in a well-rounded flavor profile. This pairing is often used in Caribbean cuisine, particularly in jerk seasoning.
  • Basil: The sweet, peppery flavor of basil works well with the heat of the fish pepper, adding a layer of complexity to dishes. This combination is common in Italian and Thai cooking, particularly in pasta and curry dishes.
  • Oregano: Oregano’s robust, slightly bitter flavor balances the heat of the fish pepper. This pairing is often used in Mediterranean and Mexican cuisine, adding a hearty flavor to dishes like pasta, stews, and grilled meats.
  • Paprika: Paprika’s sweet-smoky flavor complements the heat of fish pepper, adding (when using smoked paprika) a smoky depth to the dish. This combination is common in Spanish and Hungarian dishes, like paella and goulash.
  • Ginger: Ginger’s spicy, woody flavor pairs well with the heat of fish pepper, creating a warm and aromatic combination. This pairing is often found in Asian cuisine, particularly in stir-fries and soups.
  • Turmeric: Turmeric’s earthy, slightly bitter flavor balances the heat of the fish pepper, resulting in a warming and balanced flavor profile. This combination is common in Indian cuisine, particularly in curry dishes.

Recipes that can use fish peppers

As mentioned, any recipe that uses serranos or jalapeños are fair game for fish peppers. Here are a few to get you started among the many spicy recipes available on PepperScale.

  • Bacon, Egg, and Cheese Quiche: Serranos are the pepper used, but this is a very easy swap out, particularly for aged fish peppers (green or red.)
  • Lemon and Jalapeño Pasta: The bright bite that’s within the fish pepper pairs very well with lemon. This is a delicious summertime pasta.
  • Easy Pico de Gallo: These chilies can add even more color fun to an already colorful Mexican salsa.
50 Easy Jalapeño Recipes ebook cover

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UPDATE NOTICE: This post was updated on May 21, 2024 to include new content.
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I grew some of these this year, and not only are they very ornamental, they are very tasty. Not too hot and still fruity.


This looks so good. I’ll be trying this one soon for sure! Thanks for posting!