Tien tsin Pepper: The Spicy Red Kung Pao Chicken Pepper

tien tsin pepper
Tien tsin peppers are a variety of spicy pepper originating from China. They are used in various Chinese and other Asian dishes and stir-fries because of their simple flavor and intense heat. 

What Are tien tsin Peppers?

If you’ve ever had kung pao chicken, you’ve almost certainly seen the small and brilliant red tien tsin peppers mixed in with the other veggies and chicken. Tien tsin, pronounced “tea-in sin,” peppers are a variety of Capsicum annuum originating from the Tientsin province of China.

kung pao chicken with tien isin peppers
Kung pao chicken with tien tsin peppers.

China has a long history with the cultivation and use of chili peppers in their cuisine, dating as far back as the Ming Dynasty. Since peppers were first introduced to China, they have become one of the world’s biggest producers and consumers of spicy peppers.

Of the thousands of varieties of peppers that China now grows, tien tsin is still celebrated among cooks for its versatility. Tien tsin peppers, also known as Chinese red peppers or Tianjin peppers, will pack a serious punch without overcomplicating a dish.

How Spicy Are tien tsin Peppers?

Tien tsin peppers are quite spicy at 50,000-75,000 Scoville heat units (SHUs). This puts them in the similar mid-range on the Scoville scale as Thai peppers, Numex XX Hots, Cheiro Roxa peppers, and some cayenne peppers.

Using the jalapeno pepper as a baseline, which ranges between 2,500-8,000 SHUs, tien tsin peppers are nearly ten times hotter than your average jalapeno pepper. Having such an intense amount of heat has made tien tsins a staple ingredient in many popular Chinese dishes, and they are commonly used in simple home-cooked meals such as stir-fries and soups.

How Are These Spicy Chili Peppers Used In Cooking?

Tien tsin peppers have become one of China’s most treasured varieties of chili because of their many different applications in the kitchen. Their flavor is very vegetal and pepper-forward, so it is never overbearing when combined with other ingredients.

They shine in how they can bring just enough heat to a dish to let the other flavors come to life. Because of this, tien tsins are incredibly popular in Hunan and Szechuan styles of Chinese cooking

Tien tsins can also be dried and ground down to be used as a spice for adding heat to a dish. Their small size and slender shape make them excellent for infusing heat into chili oils or alcohols. 

Dried tien tsins and chili powder.
Dried tien tsins and chili powder.

What Is The Spiciest Chinese Pepper?

Tien tsins are one of the hottest peppers China offers, but what is considered the spiciest? Two other peppers might have tien tsins beat in terms of heat.

The Xiao Mi La and the Chinese Naga pepper are both considered China’s spiciest pepper, and both rightfully deserve the title. Xiao Mi La peppers are one of the most commonly used peppers in Chinese cuisine and come in at an impressive 75,000 SHUs. Chinese Nagas are relatives of the Naga Morich pepper, which can reach up to an impressive 1,000,000 SHUs on the Scoville scale.

These peppers are undoubtedly spicy but suit a similar function in cooking as tien tsin peppers. I’d suggest starting with tien tsins, and then if you find that you enjoy them, kick it up a notch and try out the Xiao Mi La and Chinese Naga peppers.

What’s The Difference Between tien tsin And Cayenne Peppers?

While tien tsin and cayenne peppers are commonly dried and ground up, their application is considerably different. They are both reasonably neutral in flavor, and mainly used as a heat source in any dish, so why would you use one over the other?

The primary reason you prefer one over the other is the heat levels of tien tsins and cayennes peppers. Tien tsins can be considerably spicier, with the hottest reaching nearly 75,000 SHUs on the Scoville scale. On the other hand, cayenne can be considered mild at times, with some cayenne powders being as low as 35,000 SHUs.

This means that spicy tien tsins can be twice as hot as cayenne. Tien tsin is more suitable for those seeking the rush induced by capsaicin; you could even say it’s the chili head’s cayenne.

tien tsin Pepper Substitutes

Cayenne pepper makes a fantastic substitute for tien tsin if you’re looking for a pepper that will still bring some heat to your dish but won’t be quite as spicy as tien tsins.

However, if you’re looking to kick things up a notch from tien tsins, I’d recommend using one of the hottest Thai chili peppers, the bird’s eye chili. Reaching as high as 100,000 SHUs, dried bird’s eyes are sure to make your dish wonderfully spicy.

Where To Buy tien tsin Peppers

Specialty stores, including your local Asian grocery store, will likely have fresh or dried tien tsin peppers in stock. They might be trickier to find at your typical grocery supermarket. Online retailers are your best option for reliably purchasing tien tsins.

Can You Grow tien tsin Peppers?

Growing tien tsins is a fantastic way of adding personality to your veggie patch. While many annual hot pepper gardens are full of jalapenos, habaneros, and varieties of Thai chili peppers, only a few sport tien tsins.

Fortunately, growing tien tsin peppers is just as easy as tending to just about any other chili pepper plant. The key is ensuring they receive full sunlight throughout the daytime and remain in temperatures of at least 60°F overnight. If you plan on keeping your plant perennially, you’ll want to bring your pepper plant inside before the first frost of winter.


Leland has spent most of his life in both the garden and the kitchen. A veggie garden is a place of harmony between his love of cooking and working with plants. Naturally, he loves peppers and plants about a dozen new and interesting varieties every year. His current pepper project is preparing to overwinter a jalapeño plant which he hopes will continue to flourish until the next flowering season. Leland is always excited to learn about new spicy and flavorful chilis, and he is constantly looking for new recipes to put his new peppers to the test!

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