Kung Pao Pepper: Putting POW In Pao

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Versatile, with very eatable heat…

Scoville heat units (SHU): 7,000 – 12,000
Jalapeño reference point: Equal to 5 time hotter
Origin: Asia
Products and seeds: Kung Pao pepper on Amazon

If you’ve ever dined at (or ordered from) a Chinese restaurant, you’ve likely seen on the menu a few dishes labeled “Kung Pao”. Let’s set things straight out the gate – these dishes aren’t named for this chili. Kung Pao pepper is a recent hybrid chili, and Kung Pao dishes have been around for generations. But Kung Pao pepper does taste great in this dish – and it’s perfect for using in Asian, Thai, and Sichuan cuisine – as it’s an excellent less spicy alternative to Thai peppers and cayenne.

How hot is Kung Pao pepper?

They are a very eatable medium heat, with a Scoville heat range from 7,000 to 12,000 Scoville heat units. To compare to our jalapeño reference point, that’s about equal heat with the potential for about five times hotter, if you’re comparing the mildest jalapeño to the hottest possible Kung Pao.

But, perhaps more importantly, the Kung Pao hybrid is light years milder than the peppers it often replaces in dishes. Cayenne ranges at the top end of medium chilies (30,000 to 50,000 SHU) and Thai chilies are no-doubt hot peppers with their 50,000 to 100,000 SHU range. For those that like a little spice, it’s an excellent alternative to them both – but of course it’s also much harder to find.

What do these chilies look like?

It looks very much like a cayenne pepper, long and slim. The pepper grows to four or five inches in length, and it matures from green to a vibrant red hue. Kung Pao chilies also have very thin walls, making them excellent for drying.

What does Kung Pao pepper taste like?

Again like cayenne and Thai peppers, there’s a tasty, but subtle earthy and peppery flavor to these chilies. The heat is really the defining quality of the taste, and that’s not a bad thing. Kung Pao peppers, like traditional Sichuan chilies, add heat to dishes that are often already quite savory. The pepper’s flavor doesn’t get in the way of the dish, but it does add a fiery kick and a beautiful splash of color.

How do you use this pepper?

Really anywhere you’d use Thai chilies, the Kung Pao pepper is a viable option. They are, of course, perfect for Kung Pao Chicken and other Chinese dishes. Sichuan and Thai cuisine, too, fit this chili very well. Really any stir-fry can be made just a little spicier with the addition of Kung Pao. Just slice them up, seeds intact, and fry them with the other vegetables.

With their thin walls, these chilies dry well, too, making them perfect for preserving for extended periods or crushing into chili powder and flakes. Overall – like the cayenne – the Kung Pao is a very versatile chili that can be used in a lot of ways.

Where can you buy Kung Pao pepper?

And here’s the big difference between this hybrid chili and the likes of Thai and cayenne pepper: They aren’t as easy to find. You typically won’t find these chilies on store shelves. Your best bet is farmer’s markets or grow them yourself. Kung Pao pepper seeds are easy to buy online, and you may find them, too, at a well-stocked gardening center.

The Kung Pao is really the cayenne and Thai alternative for those that don’t prefer the heat that cayenne and Thai peppers bring. If you’re searching for a versatile chili to grow with very eatable heat, it’s an excellent choice for your garden. And if you stumble across them at a farmer’s market, give them a go in your next stir-fry.

UPDATE NOTICE: This post was updated on March 19, 2022 to include new content.
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