Baltimore is a city that takes pride in it’s quirky foods - Natty Boh, Old Bay, and Lemon Sticks just to name a few. But one uniquely Baltimorean food that doesn’t yet get the visibility it deserves? The Fish Pepper!
A variation of the Cayenne, Fish Peppers are thought to have originated in the Caribbean. They are first documented in the States as arriving to Maryland in the early 1800’s. From Baltimore to Philadelphia, they soon became a prized ingredient throughout the Chesapeake region. They were especially popular in African American fish houses where cream sauce was a common topping for seafood dishes. When picked young, Fish peppers have a pale color and low heat and are good for adding a kick without muddling the creamy color or disclosing the ingredients.
This is, of course, how they earned the name “Fish” Pepper. But their status as a favorite “secret ingredient” meant that they weren’t included in many written recipes; and over the years they were largely forgotten.
Today, every Fish Pepper seed bought from a seed company can be traced back to William Woys Weaver, who reintroduced the pepper to the public through the Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook in 1995. He had inherited the seeds from his grandfather who received them in a trade with Pennsylvanian artist Horace Pippin in 1940.
At Edible Eden, we love to incorporate Fish Peppers into our gardens. Not only do they have a rich, local history; they are uniquely beautiful plants with a delicious heat. Due to a recessive albinism gene, the leaves and stalks boast an irregular mottled white and green coloration. The peppers start cream colored before turning green then red. Some may even turn a brown-purple and many of the fruits share the striped patterns found on the leaves. You can pick them at any stage but they get progressively hotter as they mature! The plants are easy to grow and do well in pots or in the ground.
Want to try fish peppers for yourself? Try this recipe for White Hot Fish Pepper Salsa developed by William Woys Weaver himself! (A tip: wear gloves when handling the hot peppers!)
White Hot Fish Pepper Salsa
1 pound white bell peppers
4 ounces white ‘Fish’ peppers
1 large cooking apple (about 8 ounces), pared, cored and chopped
1-1⁄2 cups white wine vinegar
1 cup sugar
4 cloves garlic
1 cup fresh pineapple, chopped (or substitute 1/2 cup lime juice)
1-1⁄2 tbsp salt
Seed and chop the peppers, and put them in a large, non-reactive (avoid aluminum and copper) pan. Add the apple, vinegar, sugar, garlic and pineapple (or lime). Cover and simmer over medium heat for 25 to 30 minutes or until the peppers are soft. Purée to a creamy consistency and return to the pan. Bring to a gentle boil. Stir in the salt, and pour into hot sterilized jars. Seal and store in a dark, cool closet until needed, or freeze. Yields 5 cups.