Chinese chilies are a small, spicy pepper popular in both Central American and East Asian cooking. The flavour is sharp, bright, slightly acidic, and quite spicy. The pepper is native to Central America, but is grown extensively in China. In Mexican and Central American stores they’ll generally sold under the name Chiles Japones. In Asian grocery stores, they’re generally sold as Chinese chilies, Tianjin (or Tian Tsin) chilies, or simply hot chilies. They may also be sold as Thai chilies, though this name generally refers to a separate group of hotter chili peppers common in Southeast Asian cooking.
Nomenclature is something of an issue for this pepper. Several very similar small hot chilies are sold under a variety of similar or identical names, and these names are affected by differences in language, location, and marketing. For clarification on this, consult the “Types and Varieties” section below. Regardless of the confusion, there is significant overlap in the flavour and spice-level of these various chilies, and they can be used more-or-less interchangeably.
Chinese chilies are generally available whole (as shown in the picture), and ground or crushed, though it is generally difficult to find crushed or ground Chinese chilies that have been accurately and specifically labeled as such.
Chinese chilies should, ideally, be differentiated from the group of thin, hot chilies called Thai chilies, though this can be difficult at times.
Scoville Heat Units
The biggest difficulty in finding Chinese chilies is ensuring that you’re actually buying the right chili. The various small hot chilies referred to as Thai chilies are sometimes sold, packaged, and labeled in a fashion that is virtually identical to Chinese chilies – and indeed, some of them are fairly interchangeable. That being said, many Thai chilies are actually hotter. While it’s no guarantee of success, see if you can find packaging with more descriptive labeling and, ideally, a country of origin: Chinese peppers are, unsurprisingly, commonly grown in China.
While árbol chilies are an important Mexican ingredient, they are not a particularly common in the “Mexican” section found in many grocery stores, which tends to lean towards pre-packaged Tex-Mex. That being said, they may be found in the Chinese, Asian, or “Ethnic” sections of larger and well-stocked grocery stores, especially in areas catering to a larger East Asian population.
For the hardcore DIY fan with access to fresh Chinese chilies, the dried version can be made at home (it helps to have good knowledge of dehydrating food). That being said, these chilies can be quite tricky to find in their fresh form. Small, skinny Thai chilies are often more common fresh, so you could always try drying these (though, as noted above, the end result may be hotter).
Crushed or ground Chinese chilies can be tricky to find with accurate labeling, but they can be made easily at home by stemming and pulverizing whole dried chilies.
In terms of quality, Chinese chili peppers should be dry and very slightly supple. Extremely brittle and damaged peppers should be avoided if possible, as they will have lost a great deal of flavour. Likewise, overly soft or damp peppers may have been exposed to moisture and should be avoided. Broken or cracked chilies can still be used as long as they’re still bright, clean, and a little flexible (though the broken ones will often spill seeds all over the place). The colour should be a rich, deep red to reddish-brown colour. Paler orange-red peppers are relatively common – these were picked slightly underripe, and will be a little milder in flavour and spice. The peppers themselves vary from fairly straight to somewhat curved.
As for identification, Chinese chilies are generally fairly short and plump, though they can be somewhat more elongate and/or skinny. They’re small as a rule, usually between 3-7.5 cm (1.5-3) inches long and a little under 1 cm (3/8 inch) wide.On average, these peppers are fatter and more triangular than Thai chilies, which tend to be a little bit thinner and more pointed. Thai chilies are also often, but not always, a brighter shade of red.
Chinese chilies (and Thai chilies) are generally sold without stems attached.
Chinese chilies are a versatile and popular hot pepper, primarily used to add a sharp, clean, slightly smoky spice to a wide variety of dishes. In Central America, they are frequently used crushed or pureed as a flavouring in salsas and sauces. In China (and especially Sichuan province) they are a very popular addition to stir-fries and braises, where they’re frequently used whole. They are also popular for flavouring hot oils and condiments. In Japan, they (or peppers very much like them) are frequently used to make powdered chili condiments like ichimi togarashi, shichimi togarashi, and nanami togarashi.
The peppers themselves do lend a pleasant, acidic chili taste to dishes, though it is their ability to contribute potent heat that is most appreciated. They tend to be used in dishes where the capsaicin-induced heat is intended to be prominent.
In Central America, the chilies are usually toasted in a hot dry pan or comal before using. This is not a common practice in Asian kitchens, but a similar effect is often achieved by sizzling the chilies in oil, either before adding them to a dish, or as part of the stir-frying process.
Dried and crushed or ground Chinese chilies can be used virtually anywhere that you’d used a standard spice-driven chili flake or powder, and are quite well-suited to the task. Blends with the seeds left in will be very spicy, while those made from the flesh of the pepper only (the Japanese spice powders and blends do this) will be milder.
There can be somewhat random and unpredictable variation in spice level between individual peppers. Because they’re small and generally used in multiples, this tends to balance itself out in a dish.
Caution: If you are going to be handling a lot of crushed Chinese chilies or a sauce/paste made from them, or if you plan on using your fingers to scrape out the seeds, it’s probably wise to wear gloves in order to prevent accidentally transferring the spicy capsaicin to your face. Wash your hands thoroughly after handling the seeds and membranes.
Chinese chilies require a low-to-moderate amount of preparation, though the particular method(s) necessary will vary from recipe to recipe. They’re usually sold without stems attached, but if they are present then they’re generally removed and discarded. The pepper may be cut or cracked open to discard the seeds, though this is often optional depending on the desired heat of the final dish (the seeds and membranes are the spiciest part of the pepper, and Chinese chilies are generally valued for their spiciness). As an intermediate option, the stems can be cut off and the loose excess seeds can be shaken out of the pepper, leaving some behind.
Chinese chilies, likes many other dried chilies, can be briefly heated in some way to accentuate their flavour. In Central America, this is commonly done by scattering the dried chilies in a hot comal or pan and toasting them for a few minutes. In Asia, they may be sizzled in oil before incorporating into a dish, or simply stir-fried as a component of a meal. Regardless, any necessary preparatory steps will most likely be indicated in a recipe. If you’re planning to include Chinese chilies in a recipe of your own, consider briefly toasting them in a pan or wok, or even microwaving them for 20-30 seconds to bring out the flavour.
Whole Chinese chilies can be pulverized in a spice grinder, food processor, or large mortar and pestle to create chili flakes. For best results, toast the peppers in a dry pan, then allow them to cool. If there are stems, discard them and (if desired) remove the seeds and whitish membranes for a milder end product.
Dried Chinese chilies should be stored in an airtight container to prevent them from either absorbing or losing excess moisture. Store the peppers in a cool, dark cupboard to ensure that they retain their flavour.
Crushed chilies should be stored in a similar fashion.
The following names are used to refer to these chilies, or Chilies that are highly similar. As a general rule, all of these can be used interchangeably.
The ‘standard’ variety (which may or may not be identical to some of the other varieties listed) is generally labeled as a Chinese Chili, or (in Central American and Caribbean Markets) Chile Japones.
In Japan, several local heirloom varieties are grown that are very similar to the standard Chinese chili. These include Santaka peppers and Yatsufusu peppers. Popular for making togarashi spice powders and blends, these can be also be used for Mexican, Chinese, and Southeast Asian cooking.
In China (especially Sichuan, Hubei, and Hunan provinces), small hot peppers called Tianjin (or Tian Tsin) chilies are very popular in spicy stir-fries and braises. These chilies are named after the Northern port city of Tianjin, but are more-or-less identical to the standard Chinese chili.
Things get a little confusing as far as Thai chilies are concerned. These small hot peppers are actually represented by a variety of related peppers that vary in both appearance and spiciness. They are generally thinner, smaller, and spicier than Chinese chilies, but there is a fairly broad area of overlap and confusion. English labeling is often haphazard or used randomly, so look at the appearance of the chilies and (more importantly) the country of origin when trying to differentiate Thai and Chinese chilies.
As mentioned in the Types and Varieties section above, there are a number of named chili varieties that are either identical or nearly identical, so these are worth looking for.
There are two excellent substitution options that I would recommend. First, Mexican árbol chilies are relatively close in flavour and overall heat, though they do tend to be a little bit milder overall. Dried Thai chilies are also an excellent substitute, and very close in flavour, though they are often (but not always) a little bit hotter.
If you’re looking to substitute crushed or ground chilies, cayenne chilies are going to be your best bet, as they tend to be readily available in this format in large and well-stocked conventional grocery stores. They do tend to be a little milder, but they’ll do in a pinch. If you happen to have whole árbol chilies, you could always crush or grind those yourself and use them as a substitute. If you use cayenne chili powder, try to find the freshest, brightest looking powder you can, as the taste and colour tend to fade the longer the powder sits.
If you’re looking to reduce the heat of a dish, it’s generally better to use fewer Chinese chilies, rather than substituting for a milder chili variety. While some chilies (puyas, for instance) look relatively similar and deliver less heat, these tend to be fruitier and richer tasting, and will change the complexion of a dish.
Crushed and whole Chinese chilies can be used somewhat interchangeably (and whole chilies can obviously be turned into crushed ones without too much trouble), though you’ll need to take into account whether or not you want to include the seeds in your dish. If you are using crushed Chinese chilies, try to ensure that they’re as fresh as possible – crushed chilies begin to lose their flavour after processing.