Chinese red or Tien Tsin peppers are mildly spicy (62,500 SHU) and a key ingredient in kung pao chicken, while Chinese 5 Color peppers are earthy, sweet, and bitter with 5,000 to 30,000 SHU. They are great for stir-fry dishes. Er Jing Tao and Sichuan Seven-Star peppers — staples in Sichuan cuisine — have fruity and citrusy undertones, respectively.
Table of Contents
What peppers are used in Chinese cooking?
Spices such as jalapeño and Cayenne add that spicy kick to culinary pieces worldwide. In China, there are about 2,000 varieties of peppers. However, the most common are:
- The Chinese red pepper (a.k.a. Tien Tsin or Tianjin pepper)
- Chinese 5 Color pepper
- Yunnan Wrinkled Skin pepper
- Facing Heaven pepper
- Er Jing Tao chili pepper
- Hainan Yellow Lantern chili
- Yunnan Shuan Shuan chili
Flavor profiles and heat of Chinese peppers
Here is a comparison of the commonly used Chinese peppers, featuring their flavor profile and heat level. The heat level is measured using Scoville heat units (SHU) or the amount of capsaicin in the pepper.
|Flavor profile||Heat level (SHU)|
|Chinese 5 Color||These peppers offer a medley of sweetness, bitterness, and earthiness||5,000 to 30,000|
|Er Jing Tao chile||A staple in Sichuan cuisine and used to make chili oil and chili powder, these deliver robust and sweet flavors with some fruity raisin undertones||15,000 to 20,000|
|Facing Heaven||These medium-hot peppers add fragrance to dishes and are commonly used in stir fries and meat stews||40,000|
|Yunnan Wrinkled Skin||These peppers are moderately hot, capable of giving a slightly feverish feeling, and crunchy to taste||55,000|
|Sichuan Seven-Star||An important ingredient in Szechuan cuisine, these peppers pack a mild spiciness with some notes of citrus||60,000|
|Chinese red or Tsien Tsin||These peppers have a mildly pungent taste and an equally inviting spicy aroma, with slimness and a musty undertone similar to cayenne||62,500|
|Xiao Mi La||Another popular chili in Sichuan and Yunnan, these peppers are extra spicy and a key ingredient in mala hot pot||75,000|
What are the hottest Chinese chilies?
In China, the hottest chilies are:
- 7-pot Barrackpore chili pepper (over 1 million SHU)
- Yunan Shuan Shuan chilis (1 million SHU)
- Hainan Yellow Lantern Chilis (170,000 to 300,000 SHU)
What is the best Chinese pepper?
While there are many hot pepper cultivars or varieties, it all comes down to the Chinese 5 Color and Tien Tsin peppers.
Botanically, the Chinese 5 Color pepper (Capsicum annuum) is an heirloom variety from the Solanaceae family. Native to China, it gained its name because it changes colors five times throughout its different stages of maturity.
This pepper has many culinary applications. It’s a versatile spice that can be chopped and used in recipes for soups and curries — or diced and added into dips, salads, and salsas.
Tien Tsin is also botanically classified as Capsicum annuum. It’s indigenous to China. Its name comes from the province of Tientsin, where it was originally grown.
This pepper is popular in Hunan and Sichuan cooking, particularly in stir-fries and soups. While it’s most commonly associated with kung pao chicken, it’s an essential ingredient in curd rice, chicken curry, and Szechuan shrimp.
Chinese 5 Color peppers are small peppers that are conical in shape. They grow about one inch long, changing their colors from purple to cream, yellow, orange, and red.
On the other hand, Tien Tsin peppers are bright red chilis that are one to two inches long.
The Chinese 5 Color pepper is a hot chili that combines earthy, bitter, and sweet notes. It boasts a more complex flavor than Tien Tsin, which usually adds heat to a dish instead of introducing an added flavor. But in terms of taste, Tien Tsin is mildly pungent and has a spicy smell.
|Chinese 5 Color Pepper||Tien Tsin Pepper|
|Origin||China, botanically classified as Capsicum annuum||China, botanically classified as Capsicum annuum|
|Appearance||1-inch conical peppers whose colors change from purple to cream, yellow, orange, and red||Bright-red peppers whose length ranges from 1 to 2 inches|
|Flavor||Earthy, bitter, and sweet||Mildly pungent|
|Applications||Has a wider range of applications, including stir-fries, salads, and dips||Commonly used in kung pao chicken, Szechuan shrimp, and chicken curry recipes|
|Shelf life||1 week when fresh, up to 2 years when dried||1 week when fresh, up to 2 years when dried|
|Form||Fresh and dried (can also be ground into a powder)||Fresh and dried (can also be ground into a powder)|
How long does it take for Chinese 5 color pepper to grow?
The Chinese 5 Color pepper is highly ornamental and takes 75 to 85 days to grow. It’s available from late summer through fall. However, they can also be grown indoors during wintertime.
What is the main difference between Tien Tsin peppers and Chinese red peppers?
The Chinese 5 Color pepper is a versatile chili pepper used in curries, stir-fries, soups, stews, dips, salads, and salsas — giving recipes a complex medley of earthiness, bitterness, and sweetness.
Meanwhile, Tien Tsin is a mildly hot pepper that adds heat instead of flavor. Its bright red color is a signature element of kung pao chicken.