Sweet and Spicy: Shishito Peppers

By Abby Langer, Foodable Contributor

Trendy restaurants in Toronto and other major cities around the globe are cooking up shishito peppers as bar snacks and tapas, as well as side dishes and in main courses. Shishitos are East Asian peppers that are thin-walled and completely edible, and they appear to be replacing edamame as the hip snack of the moment. Exceedingly easy to prepare, they are frequently served heaped in a bowl to accompany a glass of wine.

Once Upon a Pepper

Shishitos became popular in New York City about 10 years ago, when the restaurants Nobu and Chelsea’s tapas spot, Tia Pol put them on their menus. They started popping up around the city after that, at other restaurants and at farmer’s markets. It’s taken 10 years for the trend to migrate to Toronto, but it’s here, and restaurant owners and patrons are taking full advantage.

Typically served in Japanese izakayas, shishitos have a thin skin that chars easily and seeds that are edible. They can be blistered in a hot skillet and tossed with salt, used in stir fries, or tempura. Classic accompaniments are yuzu salt and bonito, soy, or sesame oil and ponzu. If they’re being cooked, each pepper should be pierced to prevent them from puffing up and exploding when exposed to heat.

Bringin' the Heat

Shishitos are a sweet pepper, but one in ten is really hot, so it’s sort of like playing Russian roulette when eating them!

Shishitos range from 100-1000 Scoville heat units, whereas green jalapeños range from 2500-8000 Scovilles.  Scoville heat units are a measure of capsaicin in a pepper, which gives the pepper its heat.

The shishito’s cousin, the Padron, is very similar in appearance but far hotter at between 500 and 2000 Scovilles. The Padron is also more difficult to procure in North America.

How Shishito Peppers are Being Used

Brandon Olsen of Toronto’s Bar Isabel has been cooking up shishitos as part of his Spanish-influenced menu. He uses shishitos because Padrone peppers aren’t as readily available in Toronto. The shishitos he uses are grown in Ontario, and in the off-season, in California. Shishito season runs from mid-July to October.

Olsen used to char the peppers in a cast iron skillet, but now deep fries them for 20 seconds in a deep fryer, and then tosses them with a generous amount of Maldon salt. I sat at the bar and ordered a plate of them with my husband. We ate them quickly, until my husband got a hot one which made him pause for only a minute, before continuing to enjoy the rest of the peppers. They were soft, salty, tender, mild, and totally addictive. It would be easy for one person to down a plate of them. Since the peppers are light, they’re the ideal appetizer that can be eaten, without taking up valuable dinner space in a person’s stomach.  

If shishitos are cooked too well, they will release water and dilute whatever glaze they are cooked with, so the secret is to cook them quickly and lightly.

These Peppers are Poppin' up All Over

Other Toronto restaurants that are serving shishito peppers include the Mexican-inspired Carbon Bar, which does them with a pit-fired eggplant dip, as well as an accompaniment to a hanger steak. At Cava, an Iberian restaurant in midtown, shishito peppers are served with shrimp escabeche and pine nut hummus.

Other sightings of shishitos include them being stuffed with crabmeat and havarti, or served as an antipasti with sweetbreads, or fried and dusted with pimento salt. Flash fried and threaded on skewers, they can be presented in an interesting and fun way.

Where can you get some of these sweet and spicy peppers? Shishitos are available from produce distributors and at Japanese markets, as well as at farmers markets and some supermarkets.And however you decide to serve them, shishito peppers will be a worthwhile and delicious addition to your menu.