By Dave DeWitt
Fiery Foods & BBQ Central Recommendations
Chile Pepper Bedding Plants… over 500 varieties from Cross Country Nurseries, shipping April to early June. Fresh pods ship September and early October. Go here
Chile Pepper Seeds… from all over the world from the Chile Pepper Institute. Go here
Photos by Harald Zoschke
What’s In A Name?
Habaneros and their kin are varieties of Capsicum chinense, which is one of the five domesticated species of peppers. As is true with the rest of the peppers, the nomenclature of the chinense species is highly confusing. There are three major difficulties: a misnamed species, the misuse of the word “habanero,” and a confusing number of common names.
The species was misnamed Capsicum chinense in 1776 by Nikolaus von Jacquin, a Dutch physician who collected plants in the Caribbean for Emperor Francis I from 1754 to 1759. Jacquin, who first described the species as “chinense” in his work, Hortus botanicus vindobonensis, wrote, mysteriously, “I have taken the plant’s name from its homeland,” which was dead wrong. We are now stuck with a totally inaccurate species name of a supposedly Chinese pepper that’s not from China but from the Caribbean and South America.
The second nomenclature problem is with the word habanero (sometimes erroneously spelled habañero), when it is used in English to represent the entire chinense species. That appellation is a misnomer because there are dozens–if not hundreds–of pod types within the species, and the Spanish name habanero technically refers to a specific pod type from the Yucatán Peninsula. But because consumers in the United States were familiar with the Mexican peppers, habanero became the buzz word for the species–even to the point where writers were calling the Scotch bonnet a type of “habanero.” Wrong. The Scotch bonnet and habanero are different pod types of the same species. Despite all this logic, we admit that the word habanero has come into common usage as the generic term for the species–and that is why we use it in that manner. The third nomenclature problem is a plethora of common names ranging from Scotch bonnet to bonney pepper to bonda man Jacques to Congo pepper.
But what about the Cuban connection? Isn’t that the origin of habanero, meaning “from Havana”? Pepper experts have long debated the possible Cuban origin for the habaneros that are grown today in the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico and Belize. Mexican horticulturists Cancino Laborde and P. Pozo Compodonico stated that the habanero is the only pepper in Yucatán without a Mayan name, which would indicate that it was imported. We have grown out seeds from Cuban immigrants which turned into the familiar orange habaneros, another indication of their Cuban origin.
The Amazon basin was the center of origin for the chinense species, but the story of the spread of the wild varieties and their eventual domestication is still not clear. However, the oldest known chinense specimen ever found was a single intact pod (probably a wild form) that was discovered in Preceramic levels (6,500 B.C.) in Guitarrero Cave in coastal Peru.
Since both wild and domesticated forms of the Brazilian chinense exist today, it follows that the species was domesticated much in the same manner as the annuum species was in Mexico. First, it was a tolerated weed with erect fruits. Then, as early farmers planted the seeds and tended the plants, there was a gradual evolution by human selection to larger, more pendant pods.
The domestication of the chinense species occurred around 2000 B.C., and, according to ethnobotanist Barbara Pickersgill, “it was probably connected with the development of agriculture in tropical forests. It seems reasonable to assume that C. chinense was domesticated east of the Andes by these tropical forest agriculturists, who were probably responsible for the domestication of manioc.” She added, wryly: “As a condiment, the chile pepper probably formed a welcome addition to any diet consisting largely of manioc starch.” By about 1000 B.C., domesticated chinense varieties had spread to the Pacific coast of Peru.
The cultivation of the chinense species produced many pod types and varieties. Bernabe Cobo, a naturalist who traveled throughout South America during the early seventeenth century, probably was the first European to study the chinense species. He estimated that there were at least forty different pod types of the chiles, “some as large as limes or large plums; others, as small as pine nuts or even grains of wheat, and between the two extremes are many different sizes. No less variety is found in color…and the same difference is found in form and shape.”
Chinense was and still is the most important cultivated pepper species east of the Andes in South America. Barbara Pickersgill notes that the fruit characteristics of the species are more variable around the mouth of the Amazon than further west because of human selection of the pods.
The dispersion of domesticated chinense types into the Caribbean and Central America occurred in two different directions. Some chinense varieties spread into the Isthmus from Colombia and eventually became common in Panama and Costa Rica. But apparently their spread north was halted before they reached the Yucatán Peninsula. Meanwhile, during their great migrations, the ancestors of the Arawaks and Caribs transferred the chinense from the Amazon Basin through Venezuela and into the Caribbean, where pod types developed on nearly every island. Pickersgill believes that the habanero was “a historic introduction from the West Indies” into Yucatán, completing the chinense’s island-hopping encirclement of the Caribbean Sea.
A Hot History
When Columbus first explored the Caribbean islands in 1492, there’s a good chance that the first chile pepper he encountered was a Scotch bonnet or its cousin. After all, long before Columbus arrived, the chinense had spread throughout the islands. So it would not be surprising to learn that Columbus misnamed the pod pimiento (pepper) right after biting into a chinense.
According to Jean Andrews, “After 1493, peppers from the West Indies were available to the Portuguese for transport to their western African colonies.” Brazilian peppers were available by 1508, when Portugal colonized Brazil. After sugar cane was introduced into Brazil in 1532, there was a great need for slave labor. Considerable trade sprang up between Portuguese colonies in Angola and Mozambique and across the Atlantic in Pernambuco, Brazil. It is believed that this trade introduced New World peppers into Africa, especially the chinense and frutescens species.
An early naturalist, Francisco Ximnez, wrote in his natural history of Guatemala in 1722 that he had heard of a pepper from Havana that was so strong that a single pod would make “a bull unable to eat.” Some people theorize that the unnamed pod was the legendary early habanero.
Legend and Lore
A well known West Indies folk tale describes a Creole woman who loved the fragrant island pods so much that she decided to make a soup out of them. She reasoned that since the Scotch bonnets were so good in other foods, a soup made just of them would be heavenly. But after her children tasted the broth, it was so blisteringly hot that they ran to the river to cool their mouths. Unfortunately, they drank so much water that they drowned–heavenly, indeed! The moral of the story is to be careful with Scotch bonnets and their relatives, which is why many sauce companies combine them with vegetables or fruits to dilute the heat. And water, of course, is hardly the best cool-down; dairy products are.
A Caribbean natural pepper remedy supposedly will spice up your love life! In Guadeloupe, where chinense is called le derriere de Madame Jacques, that pepper is combined with crushed peanuts, cinnamon sticks, nutmeg, vanilla beans packed in brandy, and an island liqueur called Creme de Banana to make an aphrodisiac. We assume it’s taken internally.
Habanero Hot Sauces
An old island adage says that the best Caribbean hot sauce is the one that burns a hole in the tablecloth. We’ve never seen that happen in all our trips to the Caribbean, but we’re certain that the earliest hot sauces in the region were made with the crushed chinense varieties. According to some sources, the Carib and Arawak Indians used pepper juice for seasoning, and after the “discovery” of chile peppers by Europeans, slave ship captains combined pepper juice with palm oil, flour, and water to make a “slabber sauce” that was served over ground beans to the slaves aboard ship.
The most basic hot sauces on the islands were made by soaking chopped Scotch bonnets in vinegar and then sprinkling the fiery vinegar on foods. Over the centuries, each island developed its own style of hot sauce by combining the crushed chiles with other ingredients such as mustard, fruits, or tomatoes.
Homemade hot sauces are still common on the islands of the Caribbean. The sauces piquante and chien from Martinique and ti-malice from Haiti all combine shallots, lime juice, garlic, and the hottest chinenses available. Puerto Rico has two hot sauces of note: one is called pique and is made with acidic Seville oranges and habaneros; the other is sofrito, which combines small piquins (“bird peppers”) with annatto seeds, cilantro, onions, garlic, and tomatoes. In Jamaica, Scotch bonnets are combined with the pulp and juices of mangoes, papayas, and tamarinds. The Virgin Islands have a concoction known as “Asher,” which is a corruption of “Limes Ashore” It combines limes with habaneros, cloves, allspice, salt, vinegar, and garlic.
Another good example of the combination of habaneros and other ingredients is Melinda’s (called Marie Sharp’s Hot Sauce in the U.S.), made in Belize from habaneros, carrots, and onions, which makes for a milder, more flavorful sauce than simply combining the pureed chiles with vinegar.
Jamaica’s Pickapeppa sauce has a flavor similar to Worcestershire sauce with only a slight bite. The fruity flavor comes from mangos, raisins, and tamarind. However, it should be noted that the company has a much hotter version of Pickapeppa with more Scotch bonnets and fewer fruits.
The hot sauce called Matouk’s owes its existence to a speech by Trinidadian political leader Dr. Eric Williams, who said that the variety of jams, jellies, sauces, and pickles made by housewives were an integral part of Trinidad’s culture. However, he pointed out that as women gained employment, the nation was in danger of losing the tastes of the home kitchens of Trinidad and Tobago. George Matouk, a Trinidadian businessman, was inspired by Williams’ speech, and in 1968 he founded Matouk’s Food Products and began manufacturing jellies, jams, and hot sauces. Congo peppers (the local name for habaneros) are combined with herbs, spices, and papayas. The Matouks’ brand has three heat levels of their sauce. About half of their sauce production is consumed locally, and the rest is exported, mostly to the United States and Canada. The United States is the number one market for Matouk’s Trinidadian hot sauces.
The last decade has seen an enormous explosion in habanero hot sauce production, with most of it in the United States. There are now more than a hundred brands of habanero hot sauces, with more on the way. Even the McIlhenny Company is producing one, Tabasco Habanero Hot Sauce.
The Habanero Family Described
Because of the great diversity of the species, there is no typical chinense. The varieties range between one and four and a half feet tall, depending on environmental factors. Some perennial varieties have grown as tall as eight feet in tropical climates, but the average height in the U.S. garden is about two feet. It has multiple stems and an erect habit. The leaves are pale to medium green, usually ovate in shape, and are often large, reaching up to 6 inches long and 4 inches wide. They are usually crinkled, which is a distinguishing trait.
The flowers have white, slightly greenish corollas and purple anthers. The plant sets 2 to 6 fruits per node and this trait distinguishes it from the other Capsicum species, which usually only set one fruit per node. Chinense crosses prolifically with annuum, sporadically with frutescens and baccatum, and does not cross with pubescens.
The pods vary enormously in size and shape, ranging from chiltepin-sized berries one-quarter inch in diameter, to wrinkled and elongated pods up to five inches long. The familiar habaneros are pendant, lantern-shaped or campanulate (a flattened bell shape), and some are pointed at the end. Caribbean chinenses are often flattened at the end and resemble a tam, or bonnet. Often the blossom ends of these pods are inverted. The pods are green at immaturity and mature to red, orange, yellow, or white. Chinense pods are characterized by a distinctive, fruity aroma that is often described as “apricot-like.”
The basic varieties of the chinense species are as follows: (To put the heat scale in perspective, ratings of a jalapeño range from 3,000 to 8,000 Scoville Units.)
Orange Habaneros are perhaps the most common and are originally from the Yucatán Peninsula. They are grown commercially in California and Texas, and in home gardens all over the country. They typically measure 80,000 to 200,000 Scoville Units.
Red Habaneros are grown commercially in Costa Rica and California. The ‘Red Savina’ variety from GNS Spices, Inc. is the first member of the species to be awarded a Plant Variety Protection permit from the USDA.
Datil Peppers are a somewhat milder variety with elongated pods that are grown around St. Augustine, Florida. We estimate their heat to be around 40,000 Scoville Units.
Scotch Bonnets are the typical, tam-shaped chiles of the Caribbean. They are also called booney peppers, bonney peppers, and goat peppers on various islands. They are usually red or yellow at maturity. They are about 100,000 Scoville Units.
The habanero relatives that we have collected and planted over the years are but a small fraction of the total number of pod types in the species. However, they paint a fascinating picture of the world of this intriguing species of chile pepper.
In the United States, most commercial habanero seeds are generic (meaning that their precise origin is not specified), although some varieties such as ‘Red Savina’ are appearing in seed catalogs. For growers who wish to find exotic chinense seeds, we suggest Seed Saver’s Exchange or the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Plant Introduction Station in Georgia (see Sources at the end of this article).
The seeds tend to take a long time to germinate, and bottom heating is the key to speeding up the process. The chinense, being tropical plants, do best in areas with high humidity and warm nights, but we have heard reports of chinense varieties growing well in such diverse locations as northern California, Texas, Illinois, and Louisiana. Wherever they are planted, however, they are slow growers, especially in the Southwest, and the growing period is at least 100 days or more after transplanting for mature pods.
The yield varies enormously according to the varieties grown and how well the particular plants adapt to the local environment; we have grown stunted plants with as few as ten pods and large, bushy plants with fifty or more.
The key to good growth seems to be a loose, friable soil that is well-drained but kept moist. After years of growing, we know to add organic matter to the garden soil in the form of aged manure and sawdust, compost, peat moss, or a combination of all three. For container soil, vermiculite and perlite are added to commercial potting soil along with a little sand to promote drainage. Don’t use garden soil for containers unless it is thoroughly mixed half and half with the above mixture.
During the growing season, take care not to over-fertilize, or you will have spectacular leaf growth and few pods. Any type of stress on the plant, such as withholding water, will tend to make the pods hotter. In hot and dry dessert climates, providing a sunscreen or partial shade can prevent sunscald and encourage vegetative growth.
As the plant flowers and sets fruit, there will be pods in all stages of maturity. Of course, the ripe, brightly colored pods are the most desirable, but the green pods are also good to cook with, if not quite as hot and flavorful. In some cases, with highly prolific plants that are setting dozens and dozens of pods, be sure to pick the pods as they get ripe. You may pick green ones as the plant approaches its “fruit load”–the maximum number of pods that a plant can hold.
If you are collecting seed, remember that only mature pods in full color will have seeds that will germinate. After picking, the length of time the pods will remain usable varies according to temperature, humidity, and storage. Fresh pods will last a week or so in the house, and a couple of weeks in the refrigerator. Clean all excess moisture off the habaneros before storing them in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. Inspect them every few days for mold and use them as soon as possible.
Over the years, many people have asked us how to preserve the habanero crop. The simplest method is to wash and dry the pods and place them in a plastic bag in the freezer. They will lose some of their firmness when defrosted, but the flavor, heat, and aroma are all preserved. Habaneros can also be pureed with a little vinegar and the mixture will keep in the refrigerator for weeks.
Another common preservation method is drying the pods. They should be cut in half vertically, seeds removed, and placed in a food dehydrator. After they are thoroughly dried, they can be stored in jars, stored in plastic bags in the freezer, or ground into powders (be sure to wear a dust mask!). Drying does not affect the heat level of the pods, but pods that are rehydrated will lose some flavor and aroma.
Remember, sauces and salsas are a great way to utilize excess habaneros from the garden!
The Heat Level
Although the species is renowned for the high heat level of its pods, we should remember that all heat levels are found in the chinense, from zero to the hottest ever measured. The typical commercial habanero averages between 80,000 and 150,000 Scoville Units but has great variability depending upon climate and stress. In a series of experiments at New Mexico State University, Paul Bosland and Peggy Collins tested the same variety of chinense, an orange habanero from Yucatán, grown under different conditions. In 1992, grown outside in a field, the pods measured 357,992 Scoville Units. The same variety, grown in the greenhouse, measured 260,825 Scoville Units. The variability of pungency approached thirty percent, which illustrates the role played by the environment in the heat levels of chile peppers. However, when cooks use habaneros and their relatives, they can assume that the recipes are hot, although it is wise to taste-test the habaneros first by placing a tiny sliver on the tongue and then chewing it up. Of course, the heat level can be adjusted by varying the number habaneros used, by increasing the amounts of the other ingredients in the recipes, or by removing the seeds and placental tissue to decrease the heat of the habaneros.
Since habaneros have the highest concentration of capsaicin, they are the most dangerous in terms of burns. For people sensitive to capsaicin, it can cause contact dermatitis just like poison ivy. It is particularly dangerous when it comes into contact with sensitive body parts like the eyes.
It is not merely enough to wear gloves when handling habaneros. The gloves and the cutting board used to chop them should be cleaned with bleach and a strong dish detergent to avoid transferring the capsaicin to other surfaces where it might be retransferred accidentally to the eyes. Cooks talented with knives have learned how to clean and chop an habanero without touching it with their fingers.
If you should get capsaicin in your eyes, immediately flush them with water or an eyewash. The pain will be intense, but it will soon go away. Should your fingers or hands burn from capsaicin contact, the best treatment is to submerge them in vegetable oil.
American chefs and cookbook authors love to wax poetic about the unique flavor of the fresh habanero relatives. Chef Mark Miller described fresh habaneros as having “tropical fruit tones that mix well with food containing tropical fruits or tomatoes,” and Scotch bonnets as possessing a “fruity and smoky flavor.” Cookbook author Steven Raichlen agreed, describing the Scotch bonnet as “floral, aromatic, and almost smoky.” As far as the dried habaneros were concerned, Miller detected “tropical fruit flavors of coconut and papaya, a hint of berry, and an intense, fiery acidic heat.”
Habanero Substitutions and Products
Any of the habanero relatives can be substituted for any other–Scotch bonnets for datil peppers, for example. Other varieties of chiles can be used in place of habaneros, but why bother?
There are many habanero products available in the marketplace, but the cook has to be resourceful. In addition to scouring gourmet shops and natural foods markets, cooks should explore Latin and Caribbean markets, and in some cases, Asian markets that carry Latin and Caribbean products. Here is how to use some of the processed forms:
- Dried pods. These should be rehydrated for about a half hour in hot water before using. Smoked pods are also available, and they should also be rehydrated.
- Powders. Generally speaking, use about 1 teaspoon powder to equal a single fresh pod.
- Pickles. Usually West Indian in origin, these imports are used in two ways. The vinegar can be sprinkled over foods like a hot sauce, and the pods can be washed and used as a substitute for fresh pods.
- Crushed or Pureed Habaneros. A highly concentrated form that sometimes has lime juice or vinegar added. One teaspoon substitutes for a single fresh pod.
- Hot Sauces. Generally speaking, about two teaspoons of a commercial habanero sauce will substitute for a single fresh pod.
(This Pepper Profile is adapted from The Pepper Pantry: Habaneros (Celestial Arts, 1997.)