SILI – chili pepper, aji, felfel, lup chew, mirich

Sili or chili in the Philippines is referred to specifically as the siling labuyo which is the hottest of all the chili peppers I have ever encountered. Siling labuyo (labuyo is interpreted as wild) which only means that the birds are the ones that distributed them all over the Philippines. But in my research, chili peppers are indigenous to South America and it has been in cultivation there for nearly 10,000 years. Some are distributed by birds (birds like hot peppers too) and the rest are distributed through the Spanish and Portuguese trade routes throughout Europe, Africa and India (India is now the leading producer of chili peppers in the world). Christopher Columbus introduced chili peppers to North America around 1493 as pimiento, Spanish word for pepper. The sili or chili peppers reached the Philippines in 1564 though the Spanish trades and then to Indonesia and Micronesia.

Sili or capsicum is a member of the solanaceae family of plants (nightshade) which includes tomatoes, potatoes and eggplants. There are five species of chili peppers: annum (annual), baccatum (berrylike) Chinese (from China) frutescens (shrubby or bushy) and pubescens (hairy). Siling labuyo is from the frustescens species, although we have the annum and the other varieties of chili. Siling labuyo is the most popular in the Philippines for spicing all foods specially barbecues. It is mainly used as a condiment like the hot banana sauce and palm vinegar spiced with chili and garlic. Other chili peppers like the sweet bell peppers are grown only in Bagiuo or Mountain Province because of the cool climate in the region. The sweet banana pepper variety is also popular for spicing up soups especially the sour soup we call “sinigang” (just like tom yum soup of Thailand)

There are other varieties of hot chili peppers that I have never seen in the Philippines and the heat are measured by Scoville (In 1912, Chemist named Wilson L. Scoville developed how to measure the hotness of a pepper) The hottest they found would be the habanero peppers. But I doubt that because I know our bird chilis or siling labuyo are the hottest as far as I am concern.

The leaves of sili or chili peppers are also used in cooking. We use it in chicken tinola, a soup dish made of chicken, sautéed in a combination of ginger, garlic, and onions and green papaya, we substitute sayote for green papaya if not available. We also substitute spinach for the sili leaves if not available. I also use lemon grass with it because I think it enhances the flavor of the soup. Good to eat as a side dish or a main course.

The Bicol region in the Philippines is famous for their spicy foods. Their spicy “laing” is one of the famous recipes in the Philippines. It is mainly made of taro leaves cooked in coconut milk and ginger and flavored with dried anchovies and lots of hot peppers. I read that about two years ago, in Albay, a province in the Bicol Region, where the Mayon Volcano is situated, a Filipino guy became the King of the hot peppers in one of their festivals and included in the London Guiness Book of World Records. That’s amazing!

I start the seeds in a light potting soil in a peat pot. I use peat pot so I can just transplant it in the garden, pot and all without disturbing the roots. The sili plant is not hard to take care of but some amendments will be useful to ensure harvesting hot peppers all summer long. It needs to be situated in full sun and make sure it is well-watered until it is fully established. It can tolerate drought but it is better to water the plant constantly to produce better leaves for your tinola. Not only the leaves are savory to eat but they also are rich source of calcium, iron, phosphorus and Vitamins A & B.

In herbal medicine, the old folks use the hot peppers in relieving arthritis pain and rheumatism. I remember my mom putting hot peppers (siling labuyo) in a glass bottle and filling it with kerosene and sliced gingers. I guess the hotness of the mixture helps in the relief. Capsaicin is the alkaloid compound that is found in the white membranes of the hot peppers and is now used widely in medicines for all kinds of illnesses. They say that if you eat this hot stuff everyday, you will always be in a happy mood!