How did Shishito peppers become so popular? Why are they spicy? Why are they called "Shishitos"? Are they the same as Padrons?
Shishitos have become very popular in the United States, and have raised a lot of questions about their origins, name, pungency, popularity, and beyond. Here is a Shishimai & Shishito pepper FAQ to offer some (certainly not all!) of the answers to questions we often receive.
Is Shishimai the same as Shishito?
Shishimai is a variety of Shishito pepper. It is a hybrid variety bred for earliness, vigor, and with added L3 disease resistance, meaning you won’t have to worry about tobamoviruses which can take out your pepper plants.
Where does the name Shishito/Shishimai come from?
Shishi means “lion” – Shishitos are named for lions because the wrinkled base of the pepper looks like a lion with its mouth open.
As for Shishimai, “mai” means dance. Shishimai is a festive dance performed in lion costumes at celebrations and festivals during the New Year. The performing lion “bites” children to ward off bad luck, improve academic performance, and bring good health.
Are Shishitos the same as Padrons?
Shishitos and Padrons are quite similar and are in fact of the same species, Capsicum annuum. Padrons were developed in the Padron region of Spain, whereas Shishitos were developed in Japan. There is also a similar Korean pepper called “kkwari gochu”.
Supposedly Shishitos have a lower chance of being spicy compared to Padrons (some say 1/10 Shishitos vs. 2/10 Padrons). Shishimai has also been selected for lower pungency – make sure to pick your peppers at the right size, as larger peppers have a higher chance of being spicy.
How did Shishito peppers become so popular?
Grub Street offered a couple of articles about this, more specific to “How the Shishito Conquered New York”. They attribute the start of this phenomenon in NYC to Chef Alex Raij, chef/owner of El Quinto Pino, Txikito and La Vara in NYC, who found what she knew to be Padrons at Nevia No’s Bodhitree Farm stand in Union Square. No was apparently selling them under the Korean name for the pepper, but changed the sign when asked if they were Shishitos. This was in 2004.
Then Ark Foods was founded in 2013 “to diversify the traditional farming models found in big agriculture,” and the first variety they offered was none other than Shishito peppers. By creating their own supply chain starting with 3 acres of Shishitos, they were able to offer the consistency and safety that the market demanded. Their network of chefs became “brand ambassadors,” highlighting the flavor and story of Shishitos. Once distributors picked them up, young restaurant go-ers shared them in Instagram posts, and more and more chefs wrote them into recipes, there was no stopping them.
This is just one story of course. If you know of others, please let us know!
Why are Shishitos sometimes spicy?
Shishitos have the genes to produce capsaicin, which is the heat-producing compound in hot peppers, but their gene expression is generally very muted… except when it sometimes isn’t. Scientists have been exploring this variable gene expression to find out why.
A recent paper from Shinshu University looked at the correlation between seed levels and spiciness in Shishito peppers. Supposedly, peppers with fewer seeds tend to be less spicy. This seemed to hold true: the researchers found that more seeds meant more spice and fewer seeds meant more fluctuation in the gene expression for pungency. They suggested this is due to the varied expression of 11 genes involved in capsaicinoid synthesis, which requires more exploration.
Another piece of the puzzle seems to be the size of the peppers – larger peppers perhaps means more placenta (the white lining of the fruit) and more potential for spiciness? This is not for certain, but by harvesting 3 times per week at about 3 inches, you will get (mostly!) the intended Shishito pepper flavor without heat.
How do you grow them?
Visit this link, and contact us if you have any questions!
Where can I get seeds?
Visit this link – note that we are offering non-L3 Shishimai and L3 Shishimai so you can decide which you’d like.
If you have anything to add, or any other questions to share, be sure to leave us a comment!