The new gourmet ‘it’ vegetable for Southern kitchens
Story and Photos by Cynthia Wood
While on a food and native plant pilgrimage to Austin, Texas, I was offered a small plate of charred, wrinkly green peppers sprinkled with sea salt. The waiter said that the peppers were called shishitos and that they were native to Japan. I was told to eat them like candy – everything but the stem. The flavor was mild with an undertone of smoke and a subtle hint of spiciness. Most of the peppers were mild, but occasionally I would bite into one that was hot, but not mind-numbingly so. Within a few minutes, I had devoured the entire plateful and was clamoring for more. These odd looking little peppers were seriously addictive.
Within the next few months, I found the peppers at fine restaurants from Texas to Maine and even in specialty supermarkets. Unfortunately, this chef’s darling is pricy and not always available. The solution, however, is simple: Grow them at home. If you can grow bell peppers and jalapenos, then growing shishitos (Capsicum annuum) will be easy. They can be grown from seeds or small plants can be purchased at many nurseries – ‘Mellow Star’ is a popular variety.
When working with seeds, plant them indoors approximately six to eight weeks before the last frost. Provide a source of heat under your container to encourage germination. After all danger of frost is past and the soil is uniformly warm, transplant young plants to the garden. Be sure to harden off the plants first. They can be grown successfully in the ground or in large containers, such as half whiskey barrels. Choose a location in full sun with well-drained, rich soil high in organic matter. If necessary, amend the soil with compost. Space the shishito plants approximately 3 feet apart as they can become quite large and tall – up to 4 feet high and several feet wide. You may want to grow them with some type of support, such as wire cages, that will keep the plants from toppling over and breaking while also making harvesting the peppers easier.
Shishito peppers are tough plants and easy to grow; they’re quite tolerant of benign neglect.
After the shishito plants begin to flower, feed them regularly with a balanced fertilizer, such as 5-10-10. Applying fertilizer earlier tends to make plants produce more foliage and fewer peppers.
Although shishitos are a hot weather crop, they tend to drop their blooms when temperatures are consistently above 90 F. Be patient and provide the plants with a regular supply of water. At the end of the summer, harvest shishito peppers when they’re 2-3 inches long and still green. It’s not unusual to find 20 to 30 peppers on a single plant. If you miss some and they turn red, no matter. They’re still quite tasty. According to shishito lore, most of the peppers are mild, but approximately 1 in 10 can be spicier. Not fiery hot, but noticeably hotter than their counterparts. They’re a culinary surprise and that’s part of the fun of eating them.
Shishito peppers are tough plants and easy to grow; they’re quite tolerant of benign neglect. They have few pests, just occasional aphids and slugs that can usually be dealt with by hand picking or a blast of water from the garden hose. The most persistent pest that you’ll have to deal with when growing shishitos is your best friend or neighbor. Once they realize that you have a steady supply of these treats in your garden, they’ll expect a bagful on a regular basis.