It wasn’t too long ago when we were all crushing a few pieces of siling labuyo into our soy sauce and vinegar. And if this still seems like a pretty normal occurrence today, I have some news for you: Those long red chilis you’re eating, the ones with the slightly curved tail, those are definitely not siling labuyo. So don’t believe Sharon Cuneta when she gazes into a steaming bowl of Lucky Me! Spicy Labuyo in those TV commercials, emphatically saying puns like, “I labuyo!” Don’t believe the signs along the grocery aisle or in the market. We’ve been bamboozled.
The true face of our native pepper is familiar to those who’ve lived through the ’90s, when the real siling labuyo was common. Capsicum frutescens is short and stubby and pungent, maturing from a pale yellow into a bright red (or sometimes into other colors). The labuyo is a sister to the piri-piri and the tabasco peppers, and to the cabai rawit that goes into spicy sambal.
We’ve been mistaking the F1 for siling labuyo all this time.
In the early 2000s, a hybrid developed from the Capsicum annuum species of peppers started infiltrating our shores. This pepper, called the F1 Taiwan after its country of origin, was bred to be more cost-effective, high-yielding, and resistant to pests—areas that our humble sili could not compete with.
There is no mistaking the F1 for the labuyo. The former is about an inch long, where the latter barely tops out at a centimeter; the former is slightly bitter in flavor, while the latter is fruity, perfect for crushing into condiments.
“[Ang labuyo] garapal sa anghang. Parang sapak. Sa dulo pa lang ng dila nararamdaman mo na.” <callout-alt-author>Malaya Pasion<callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author>
“You will rarely find labuyo in the city,” says Chef Justin Yenko, co-founder of Garapal, a local hot sauce brand that exclusively uses labuyo. Unless one lives in one of the provinces that still produce it, or have connections to particular farms, regular folks are slowly losing access to siling labuyo. Harvesting it poses a number of challenges that make it less appealing to farmers: It bears significantly less fruit than the F1, gathering the tiny nubs is more labor intensive, and the farmers have even the birds to contend with.
But we’ve been mistaking the F1 for siling labuyo all this time. Lucky Me! is merely the tip of this curious iceberg. Dizon Farms, too, brazenly mislabels packs of F1 Taiwan. The misinformation is comprehensive. Every person I’ve spoken to (outside the chili growing community, that is) has mistakenly identified one for the other. Don’t believe it? Ask someone at the grocery or wet market for labuyo and see what they give you.
Thankfully, there are a few groups out there hoping to right this injustice. If you happened to walk into the Bougainvilla Clubhouse in New Manila last September 17, you wouldn’t think that anything was amiss, except for the the massive pile of siling labuyo sitting at the far corner of the lobby, a group of men huddled over it carefully counting pieces of sili into small plastic cups. It was all for the induction of the Labuyo 100, held at this year’s Philippine Chili Festival. The Labuyo 100 is a challenge to consume 100 pieces of the stuff in 15 minutes.
As bonkers as that sounds, it isn’t just an empty dare. Started by Larry Cariño, the mission is to evangelize about the medicinal value of chili peppers and repopularize the use of siling labuyo. That day, over 20 red-faced, teary-eyed “chiliheads” joined the Labuyo 100’s ranks.
As a member of the fiery group, Justin, and the co-founders of Garapal, Malaya Pasion and Edouard Canlas (both of whom aren’t part of the Labuyo 100,) started the brand in 2015 as a celebration of our native pepper’s kick.
“[Ang labuyo,] garapal sa anghang. Parang sapak. Sa dulo pa lang ng dila nararamdaman mo na,” says Malaya. The move was a vouch of confidence that siling labuyo could hold its own alongside other peppers popular in hot-sauce making, such as habaneros and ghost peppers.
This story was originally published in GRID Volume 04.