Sili / Chilli

Sili Labuyo (Bird’s Eye chilli) is more complicated than I thought. chiliWhat 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. chilli2Capsaicin 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 chilli3but 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.”


24 Responses

  1. Greetings!

    I would just like to ask where I can find stocks of siling labuyo seeds to ba planted in our farm in Antipolo, Rizal. We wanted the bird’s eye chili pictured in your site with the rounded end and not the pointed one. I have been searching for this specific variety of chili seed.

    Please refer me to someone who may help me regarding this matter. Thanks very much…


  2. dexter, yes, thank you for that. I just recently saw a tv program on those chillies grown in India AND now in England and other places, they sound wickedly hot…yes, they have received the new crown for the hottest on the planet! Thanks for the link!

  3. hi..^_^
    i just wanted to ask..
    is there any medicinal discovery on chili?
    we have kasi this investigatory project on our school..
    and our Science Congress is fast approaching.,
    please ., eMail me nalang about your answer..
    thank you.. a lot!!
    hope you can help me..

  4. Speaking of habanero, I tried one of the sauce made of Habanero, and it wasnot not hot at all. Actually i found that they diluted it. So it really takes away its true taste, if you could taste it. I was in PI this year and asked a market vendor in Cavite for sili labuyo, and he showed me some. It did not look like sili labuyo and i said this is Asian. And he smiled and he said it was Taiwan. I want the real labuyo, he he replied you mead “Siling Bundok”. I do not have one. So during my rounds in Makati, I stopped by SM and found many selection od Sili from PI and one of them said Local Siling Labuyo. Got back to my Hotel opened one and started drying the seeds. These seeds made it here in Calif. Now I make sauce out of them. These are seasonal sauce because I do not have a farm. But the Vietnameese loves them, because it is hot. I gave some to my Hispanic friends and they finished the 1.7 Oz in a day. These guys are crazy, but they love my sauce.

  5. Even though this post is a bit old, I just wanted to make things a little more clear. Marketman is right about the Habanero being the hottest pepper in the world judging by the date of the posting. This posting dated back in February 2005 which at that time the Habanero was still the hottest pepper in the world. It is the Red Savina Habanero to be exact. Red Savina was crowned the hottest pepper in 1994 and it held that record until September 2006 when the mighty Naga Jolokia or Bhut Jolokia took over the world record of being the hottest pepper in the world. Now the Red Savina Habanero is number three from the top of being the hottest pepper. First: Naga Jolokia, Second: Dorset Naga, and Third: Red Savina Habanero. The one we fear in the Philippines which originated in Thailand, Siling Labuyo, Birds Eye, or simply Thai-Pepper is ranked number 7 from the top. I hope this enlightens the subject. By the way, here in the U.S. I bought my Siling Labuyo seeds from Seeds Savers Exchange. It costs $2.75 for 25 seeds and they are located in Iowa. Here is the web address: They call it “Thai Hot Pepper”.

    Robert Colinares
    Missouri, USA

  6. can you become addicted to chilli and also does it irritate or harm your insides if eaten too much??

  7. natasha, yes, many folks claim chillis are “addictive” in a sense… and frankly, I don’t know if they harm your insides but I would guess EXCESSIVE eating might… then again, if you see how many chillis an average citizen of say Korea, Indonesia or Thailand consumes, I would think the body’s tolerance level is pretty high…

  8. Market Man love your article!

    I have “REAL” Sili Labuyo seeds should you want to grow your own. Last time my wife went home to the Philippines her dad sent me about a liter of dried and crushed Sili Labuyo. I was able to germinate and grow some plants. You can tell these are the real thing because they are much smaller and have a more rounded tip. I wrote about them on my blog at;

    Shoot me an email if you want some seeds.


    In Americka the Sili you buy at the Asian market is labeled as Sili but are not my beloved Sili, at least not Philippine Sili. Back in the Pinas, one Sili measuring ½ in length contained enough fire to cause not only your forehead to bead sweat but also the parietal area of your head to seep large droplet of sweat too.

    Here in Americka, Siling labuyo is just not the same, it was routine for me to eat spoonfuls of this “imported” Sili. I would line both sides of my hotdog with them, I would eat five or six to a spoonful of rice and adobo. I would in essence eat a whole 12oz. jar in less then one month and my acid reflux would hardly notice.

    Janet, my loving wife, remembering her husband (me, who else) while back home in Bicol picked and pickled 2 quarts of Sili that her mama and papa grow in their garden. While picking them papa was shocked that I ate the Sili like it was candy.

    When Janet told me this I laughed and said “those are not even hot.”

    When Janet returned home and I was able to sample them I found that these Sili were INCREDIBLY HOT. I found that the green, light green and red were hot right off the bat. The yellow or beige ones were mild and white ones sneak up on you; at first you think they are bland and then all of a sudden your mouth is on fire, your face will flush and your whole head will seep droplet of sweat.

    Last night, I don’t know what I was thinking. I ate an assortment of these Sili on two ham sandwiches made from left over from thanksgiving. I had placed 8 Sili on each sandwich for a total of 16 Sili

    Today my stomach is rumbling and my lower exit hole is burning so bad that if not for the fear of getting frost bite I would shove a whole tray of ice cube up my personal lower orifice………… I am in trouble……. For lack of a better description my ass is on fire.

  9. Robert Colinares; I beg to differ, the Sili Labuyo peper and the Thai Peper are a different plant. The Thai peper have a much smaller leaf then the Sili. The fruit are the same size.

    I’ll post pictures of both…


  10. i am grade six pupil,i want to ask can labuyong sili do as a katol..

    thank u..

  11. joyce, sorry, I don’t know if you can use chillis to ward off mosquitos… I suppose you need to do an experiment to find out…

  12. Can I ask what are the contains of sili labuyo? what vitamins we can get from it?

    Why sili labuyo use as medicine for wound?

    please share with me the above answer.

    Thank you.

  13. You will find great medicinal uses for hot peppers if you google search “cayenne peppers + medicinal uses”. Great for heart and heart attacks too.


  14. hi erdie, of course you can sell them at the market, he he. Or better, sell your ani to marketman. ha ha.

    Marketman is correct. the siling labuyo was so named because it grows in the wild. Actually, they are just the same as the common native chilli, which are called PASITE in Batangas that are sometimes eaten by birds and whose seeds were dispersed via its droppings.

    The picture above is not a real labuyo. I remember my dad having them when I was a kid and he said they were imported. They are hotter than the labuyo and have a tougher skin.

    The real labuyo or the ancestor of the labuyo does not turn yellow but brown prior to getting fully ripe thus becoming bright red.

    The labuyo is smaller in size because it has to, considering that it grows wild and must depend on its own instinct (if it has any) to survive without care.

    I gathered some siling labuyo from the mountains and planted it at home. With proper care and rich soil, I found that they would bear larger fruits than its mother plant.

    i theorize, that since the wild environment is less forgiving than our gardens, the chilis have learned to adapt by bearing smaller fruits and leaves, just like the wild strawberries of Sagada. I have actually observed this in other plants in our garden during extended drouts. Some hardy plants have the built-in ability to adapt to its environment to survive.

    Therefore, I think that the siling pasite is just the domesticated version of the wild siling labuyo, unless the siling labuyo have developed some genetic mutation through the years of its isolation in the wild without cross pollination.

    The labuyo being referred to by vendors today are the imported variety developed in taiwan.They should not at all be called labuyo. They are todays favorite by merchants as they have a triple shelf life. The labuyo would only keep fresh for a couple of days before going totaly wrinkled.

    There are a lot more things called incorrectly by vendors today. I think its about time the govt steps in and correct this. It not only promotes dissemination of wrong information but it also encourages dishonesty on the part of the sellers.

  15. The social media aspect of a blog post over four years old showcases the theoretical ability of the longtail in action. Point being that as time goes on the subject matter remains- in 50 years this post will still be here. We are the precursors to an age we have yet to define. That said the hottest F*CKEN peppers in the Ph has been on Ticao Island Masbate, wow these little tiny buggers were called sili lubuyo but were the size of pencil lead and holy CRAP they were so hot all I could eat was one, now for reference I just ate 8 with two bricks of pancit canton my bicol (ticao island GF) said it was too hot cried and drank a pitcher of juice, but for me I felt NOTHING.

    THe native sili is the best 100% just like the chicken, men and women!

  16. im a fan of siling labuyo.. and i just currently making feasibility studies about it.. how much fruit in grams can a Siling labuyo produce in one cropping??..diba its perrenial?? four times ba ito mamumunga taga.taon.. hope you response too soon because i really need it..tnx.. hehe..

  17. hi, im planning to plant siling labuyo this aug-sept 09. about 3.5 ha will be planted. do you know were i can sell it? do have a contact buyer of siling labuyo? can you give me some suggestion on management of this crop? hoping for reply. tnx

  18. I find it strange to think that the siling labuyo found in the Philippines originated from Thailand as Robert Colinares says. If the history that chilies arrived from the New World, Mexico in particular, is accepted, it makes far more sense to believe that the chilies first became entrenched in the Philippines which was a Spanish colony and was the Asian hub of the Spanish galleon trade fleet that sailed from the Philippines to Mexico. Filipinos should be far more sensitive to how foreigners are rewriting the history of the culinary bounty provided by the Philippine islands. Vietnamese cuisine, Thai cuisine, Malaysian cuisine, Indonesian cuisine, and Singaporean cuisine is already established or becoming established in the international mindset, yet Filipino cuisine comes across as more of an afterthought or footnote. Filipinos are selling the bounties of their country short. Siling labuyo should be referred to as siling labuyo not Thai bird’s eye. Milagrosa rice should be referred to as milagrosa rice not jasmine rice. Local chefs should refer to patis as “fish sauce” and not insult their own country by talking about “Thai fish sauce” as if the Philippines didn’t have a significant history with fish sauce itself. What next? Thai mangoes?

  19. Obra, I agree that our own labuyo and the Thai bird’s eye are somewhat different. Over the hundreds of years, our have evolved to be shorter, pudgier and possibly of a different heat level. And yes, I would tend to agree with it hitting us first if it came by way of the Spaniards, though i haven’t thoroughly explored the other route to Thailand from the Indian side which also has a long history with chili…

    In Manila, we do refer to milagrosa whether at the market or at specialty restaurants. and I am not sure where “Thai fish sauce” has piqued your sensibilities but patis is patis. Though I would be the first to say that these days, it is MIGHTY hard to find a good local patis, and Thai imports are beginning to outshine the local product. As for going back in history, you may wish to check out my post on dayap, almost the exact same species of citrus/lime as what is popularly known as “key limes” in florida, which if the experts are correct, originated in Malaysia or the Philippines several hundred years ago. I am sure there were many more things that Spanish galleons brought from this part of the world back to Mexico and beyond. As an interesting side note, kiwis which are now heavily associated with New Zealand, are in fact a fruit that comes from Southern China and which thrived in NZ. Many western fruits also originated in China, I understand… fascinating topic. As for Thai mangoes, quite the opposite has happened. In the U.S., I am told that “Manila Mangoes” are being marketed more aggressively, even though the fruit are grown in Mexico. And “Manila Clams” are popular but grown of the Pacific coast of Canada…

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