Bird’s-eye chillies grow like weeds in Far North Queensland. You find them springing up everywhere. In gardens, banana paddocks and along the edges of the rainforest. Most people have no use for them, believing they are way too hot to be enjoyable to eat. It’s a shame because with little effort, they can become a very handy ingredient . . .
As a kid, my first memories of bird’s-eye chillies always revolved around daring games. Who was tough enough to eat one without reacting like someone had poured battery acid on their tongue.
Pretty much an impossible – even the toughest challengers couldn’t help but shed a tear. Then some kids got smart and realised, if you don’t chew them and swallow the whole, they don’t burn.
They were our heroes . . . at least until the rest of us worked it out!
Fast forward 30 years and not a whole lot has changed.
I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen one of my work mates grab his water bottle on a hot day, take a long, refreshing swig, put the bottle down and then start to feel a strange burning sensation on the lips.
As soon as the first bit of discomfort is shown, fellow workers burst into fits of laughter. The old bird’s-eye rubbed around the mouthpiece prank strikes again.
To most North Queenslanders, that is about the limit of their use – pranks.
Now, there is no arguing they are hot; at least to our western palates in this corner of the world, but there are ways to use them to flavour things without incinerating your taste buds.
The secret is to turn them into something that you can use a little of, or a lot, to suit your particular tastes.
The first way you can do this is to pick all the ripe (red) bird’s-eyes off a plant, and place them onto a baking tray lined with baking paper. Put this into an oven at around 75 degrees Celsius and let them dry out completely over an hour or so.
Once they are done, give them a bit of a blitz in the food processor. You want them to be turned into smallish flakes, but not too fine.
Now these can be stored in an re-cycled spice container in the cupboard and a pinch added to curries, stir fries, dressings . . . anything where you need a bit of chilli kick.
As long as you dry them thoroughly, they will last for ages. How much you use is your call.
Another way you can use them is to place them in a jar and submerge them in your favourite vinegar. I like to use both red and green (unripe) bird’s-eyes for this as the mix of colours adds visual appeal.
Let these pickle for at least a month. Then you can either finely chop the chilies and add them to dishes, or you can use the vinegar alone for the same purpose.
Believe me, nothing tastes better than a fresh meat pie from your favourite baker that has had a teaspoon or two of chilli-infused vinegar tipped into it through a hole punched into the pastry on top.
Once again, you can adjust how much you add. You can also add various herbs and spices to the chillies while they pickle, making many different flavour combinations.
Adding to other pickled vegetables
Another option is to use the chillies as a flavouring in a pickle, rather than being the main item. A friend of mine pickles his own olives this way and throws in a generous amount of bird’s-eyes in each jar, along with a sprig of fennel.
He makes his quite hot and if you don’t mind a bit of spice, they are a great snack. How much you put in is entirely up to you.
Of course they can also be used in any recipe that calls for fresh chillies; just remember they pack more of a punch than your more popular supermarket varieties, so take this into account.
But you know what is the best thing about bird’s-eye chillies?
You don’t even have to grow them. They love the tropical climate so much they tend to pop up everywhere.
Which sets them apart from other varieties which seem to struggle here with our clay soils. Bird’s-eyes love it though, so basically you can forage for them and never grow a bush.
Do you use bird’s-eyes?
If you do post a comment below and tell us your favourite way to use them!