Sili Labuyo (Bird’s Eye chilli) is more complicated than I thought. What I presumed would be a relatively simple entry on one of my favorite ingredients for local and regional cooking has turned into a several hour quest to figure out what it really is. While I could have ignored all of the stuff written up (or not written up, notably, in many local texts that simply describe it as a hot chilli), I have tried to summarize the most relevant issues for the curious foodie…
Let’s start with what experts seem to agree on… Chillies originated in Mexico, and were already being cultivated there around 3,500 BC. In the early 1500’s AD, the Spaniards and the Portuguese took them to India and Southeast Asia where they flourished. The dried seeds of the chilli travelled well hence the ability to take them such distances. They thrived in hot climates thus their rapid adaptation to many parts of India, Indonesia and other tropical Asian countries. The locals took to the spice rapidly and before long, their national cuisines were heavily influenced by the “heat” generated by the fruit – imagine Indonesian, Thai and Indian food without chilli – that is what they were like prior to the 1500’s!
Chillies contain capsaicin which irritates the skin in your mouth and throat. Capsaicin has no smell or flavor but it is what provides the “heat quotient” for the specific chilli. The capsaicin is primarily located in the pith that connects the seeds to the pod, not in the seeds itself as is frequently mentioned. The “hotness” of a chilli is measured in Scoville units (typically used in the west) which, simply put, is a scale that dilutes capsaicin in sugared water until the “heat” can no longer be detected. The longer it takes to dilute the heat, the higher the score. To give you a range, sweet bell peppers are rated zero while the world’s hottest pepper, the Habanero, is rated at 100,000-300,000 Scoville units.
There are five species of the capsicum genus of which C annuum or C. frutescens are the two most common. It is here that the debate begins. To which of these species does Sili Labuyo belong, roughly how “hot” is it, and should we give a hoot, anyway? For many years, people assumed that this was of the C. frutescens species or a relative of the famous Tabasco chilli. However, recently, other experts seem confident it is a member of the C. annuum species, albeit the hotter end. Many years back, our own Sili Labuyo apparently made it into the Guiness Book of World Records as the hottest chilli in the world. It apparently wasn’t or isn’t the hottest, so we must have had really good PR people at the time. At about 80,000-100,000 Scoville units, Labuyo is at the lower end of the range for the Habanero chilli. Nevertheless, it is hot, rating perhaps 8 or 9 out of 10. Let’s leave the debate to plant experts and just say, it’s a pretty bloody hot chilli that adds yummy zing to a variety of local and regional dishes (and my vinegar, too).
Now let’s speculate on the name. For such a key ingredient, so little is written in the source books that I have referred to. Literally translated, labuyo means wild or undomesticated so the name would translate in “wild chillies,” perhaps referring to the fact that they grow anywhere… Another theory is that labuyo is used as in “wild rooster” in the dialect of tawi-tawi and perhaps as chilli made its way up from Indonesia bird chilli became wild cock chilli… Enough, enough already you scream!!! Okay, to the pictures and some dopey tips to go with them. The chillis in the top photo are the basic Sili Labuyo. They come in varying stages of ripeness from green to red and sometimes white/yellow. Their heat quotient varies from time to time and from area to area. When using, taste your dish often so you can figure out if you need to add more heat. I like the bright red chillies and find the green ones too painful. The smaller, I am told, the better. By the way, the pain is said to be addictive, thus the need to add more and more chilli once you get the bug…
The second photo has bright red, pointed and longer Sili Labuyo, though my market friends say this is an imposter, actually a chilli whose seeds have come down from Taiwan or elsewhere in the past 10 years and because they are so easy to cultivate, and so nice to look at, that they are slowly taking over the older, more “real” Labuyo. I find them to generally have less heat than Labuyo and I am starting to be bitchy about using only real Labuyo when I can find it.
Finally, the third photo is not a Labuyo at all but what we locally call the Sili Mahaba (Long Chilli) – duhh, because it is longer than the Labuyo? Actually, these are roughly 4-6 inches in length and nowhere near the heat of the smaller Labuyo. But they do add a nice touch to certain dishes such as those cooked in coconut milk or some sinigangs. This chilli, I am assuming is also part of the C. annuum species but of the milder end. All of these chillies keep well in a refrigerator for several days. Be careful when handling the buggers as they can spray capsaicin when you are cutting them or when you fry them in hot oil. Do NOT touch your eyes (nor any other sensitive body parts) after cutting chillies and before washing your hands thoroughly – do it once, and you will fully understand!!! Sources: Elizabeth Schneider’s “From Amaranth to Zucchini,” and Alan Davidson’s “Oxford Companion to Food.”