Growing up with a chili vocabulary limited to siling labuyo and siling haba, I never really bothered learning about cultivars. In fact, I don’t think I knew about cultivars until much, much later. In practice, I used siling labuyo if I wanted intense heat in my dish; and I used siling haba if I wanted milder heat.
It didn’t help that when bird’s eye chilies started making an appearance in the groceries, they were labeled as siling labuyo. They looked the same, they had the same general coloring and I started using the terms siling labuyo and bird’s eye chilies interchangeably. Now, I know that they aren’t the same.
How did I find out?
Searching for a good subject for macro photography, I went out to the garden early this afternoon. One chili plant, the one that grows near the dog’s kennel, is always heavy with fiery red fruits so it was a logical choice. There were so many fruits growing close together that, in the end, I ditched the macro setting and took photos of a cluster of chilies.
It was while cropping the photos that I noticed how the fruits grow erect — upward from the stalks. I did a double take, checked the other chili plants in the garden and the fruits all grow that way.
The confusion was maddening. Surely, no fruit grows upward from its stalk? I’ve seen hundreds of photos of bird’s eye chilies on the web and I don’t recall the fruits growing the way the ones in our garden do. It took an hour of Googling to find the answer.
Bird’s eye chili belongs to the Capsicum annuum species while siling labuyo belongs to the Capsicum frutescens species. The scientific differences are interesting but not really necessary knowledge for a home cook. In the kitchen, there is only one distinction between bird’s eye chili and siling labuyo that matters — siling labuyo is hotter than bird’s eye chili.