The Habaneros of Yucatán

Dave DeWitt Mexico and Central America Leave a Comment

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Habanero Growing Systems
Article and Photos by Dr. Tomas Gonzalez Estrada
Edited by Dave DeWitt

Editor’s Note: Dr. Gonzalez is a researcher and habanero breeder at the Scientific Research Center of Yucatán (CICY) in the city of Merida. The center, in addition to habanero research, investigates and improves the cultivation of other crops as well, including coconuts, coffee, bananas, and agaves.

Habanero Pepper (Capsicum chinense Jacq.) is one of the main agriculture commodities grown in the Yucatán Peninsula. Usually, its pods are sold fresh; however, current demand for high quality habanero dried pods, powder, and mash exceeds the supply, and this has resulted in a rush to grow more habaneros in the U.S., Central and South America, and the Caribbean. Pod quality in terms of color, aroma, flavor and pungency is very important for this crop. Habanero pepper grown in Yucatán has an international reputation for being a high quality hot pepper with a bright orange color, high pungency with a special flavor, a typical aroma, and a long shelf life.

In Yucatán, habanero pepper production takes place in fields with contrasting soil conditions and crop management. There are at least four main habanero crop production systems: rain-fed shifting cultivation, drip irrigation in shallow stony soils, tractor cultivation in deep soils, and protected crop production. These crop systems are practiced in different geographic zones within the Yucatan state; however, regardless of crop system and geographic zone, production of habanero pepper is intended for commercializing in local, national and international markets, and this crop represents an important source of income for many local farmers and processors.

Rain-Fed Shifting Cultivation

Rain-fed shifting cultivation is mainly carried out in the central and west zones of Yucatán where forest still available for this type of agriculture. The system is an adaptation of the traditional corn-field (milpa) agricultural system practiced by the Maya farmers for many centuries. Forest clearing takes places at the same time and way as it happens for corn field preparation. However, farmers select patches of deep red soil and try to avoid stony hills with shallow soils. Cleared areas may vary but traditional farmers usually cultivate small habanero fields ranging from400 to 2000 square meters. Quite frequently, a farmer has more than one habanero field and also cultivates other local chile (Capsicum annuum) cultivars such as ‘X’catik’ and ‘Dulce’. Habanero seedlings are raised in beds, transferred to small plastic bags for further development and finally planted out in the fields. Alternatively, polystyrene trays or wooden raised beds locally named as “Canche” are used for seedling production. Planting out in the field takes places in mid or late May. When required, manual irrigation with small vessels is practiced until the rain season regularizes. Rain-fed shifting cultivation farmers do apply fertilizers, pesticides, and some of them also apply growth regulators for enhancing plant development and yield. Weed control is carried out manually, as well as harvest. Among the main constrains they face are uncertainty of rainfall and virus infection transmitted by insect vectors such as white fly and thrips. Virus diseases may reduce the yield, and under favorable conditions for the viruses, 100% of the plants get infected and farmers abandon the field since the pay off for continuing becomes almost impossible.

Drip Irrigation in Shallow Stony Soils. This habanero crop system is mainly practiced in the central and north zones of Yucatán. Fields are cleared from vegetation the same way as in the shifting cultivation system; however, due to the irrigation infrastructure and practical watering needs, the fields are arranged in a regular compact design, usually square blocks, around the well and the pump required to provide water to the plants. Habanero fields under this scheme will have a larger area with a minimum of one hectare up to 10 hectares, or even more, depending on the number of farmers attending these fields. (A hectare is 3.47 acres.) Usually in large fields, farmers work in groups. Because of field size and irrigation pipes, soil for planting will include red deep soils but also hills with shallow soils. Seedlings come in polystyrene trays that are bought from professional seedling producers. Transplanting occurs at any time of the year; however, because of virus diseases farmers try to avoid planting and growing in the high temperature months (February to May). Farmers using drip irrigation apply soluble fertilizers (fertirrigation), and sometimes pesticides with the pipelines. Weed control is usually done manually and very seldom with herbicides. Harvest is carried out manually by the farmers and their families.The generalized problems for habanero farmers producing with this crop system are virus diseases and controlling the insects that transmit them. Because of these problems, production cost could increase and yields decrease, rendering a low profit return. Virus diseases could make unprofitable habanero production under this crop system. It is important to mention that investment in infrastructure is required for this habanero crop system. Usually, when financial resources from a government agency are available, a drip irrigation project is defined. This will include introduction of electricity lines, sinking of wells, a hydraulic pump, and the drip irrigation pipes to provide the basic infrastructure for habanero production. Farmers are asked to form a legally established group or production society that allows them to get government and bank loans for paying for the infrastructure and production needs such as seed, seedlings, fertilizers, pesticides, and technical assistance from a professional agronomist.

Tractor Cultivation in Deep Soils 

In the south and southeast of Yucatán where deep soils allow for mechanized agriculture, habanero tractor cultivation takes place. Ploughing is usually shallow, commonly to about 20 to 30 centimeters (approximately one foot). In this crop system, irrigation is applied by gravity and furrow separation distance will vary from 80 centimeters up to 120 centimeters (about 2 1/2 to 3 feet). Distance between plants is usually 50 centimeters (20 inches). Seedlings are obtained from specialized producers and come in polystyrene trays. Despite available irrigation transplanting that could take place at any time of the year, farmers prefer to produce during the rainy season. Habanero field size under tractor cultivation varies from 0.5 hectares (about 1 acre) up to more than 20 hectares (about 8 acres). However, the latter are not very frequent. Fertilizers are applied manually, plant by plant. A few farmers also apply fertilizers through the irrigation water, but this practice is not commonly used. Tractor cultivation is used for weed control, although some farmers control weeds manually. Pesticides are sprayed with larger tanks and spraying systems, but as in the previous crop systems, virus diseases are a common problem that is difficult and expensive to prevent and control. Workers are hired for harvesting, since the field size is much larger. Habanero yield will increase under this crop system–up to 20 tons per hectare or even more. Farmers producing with this system have usually higher income and get better profits, despite they have to invest more money in the production.

Protected Crops

Habaneros in a Screenhouse

Habaneros in a Screenhouse

Protected habanero is the newest crop system introduced to Yucatán habanero production systems. For insect protection and shade, many different structures have been recently introduced to produce habanero pepper. These structures have many names, such as shade houses, screen houses, and plastic houses. Basically they consist of a metal structure covered with a screen with such a small mesh that small insects cannot get in. The roof is usually a ultraviolet-resistant plastic cover that may or may not have shading to reduce sunlight entering inside the structure. The structures’ size is variable ranging from 500 square meters up to more than 10,000 square meters. Usually, these structures are built in a modular fashion by suppliers. For construction, a flat area is chosen and they have been built in any geographic area of Yucatán. Soil is modified or even replaced with a specially mix substrate. Seedlings are raised in polystyrene trays by professional producers. Seedlings are transplanted at any season, even in the warmest months of the year. Drip irrigation with nutrient solutions is a common practice in this crop system. Pest and diseases are significantly reduced by the screen and also access of workers to the screen house is restricted. Insect traps are usually installed to monitor any undesirable pest. Good practices for insect and pest control are usually carried out with the supervision of a professional advisor. Under screen house conditions, habanero plants grow larger than in unprotected systems and plants can grow as tall as 3 to 4 meters.

Yamilet of PADYSA Amidst Tall Habanero Plants

Yield per plant is higher with an average of 5 kilograms (11 pounds) per plant. This yield equals to 80 to 100 ton per hectare. In addition, pod quality also improves, as more than 70% are first class. Weeds are almost absent and the the few growing are manually controlled. Virus diseases are reduced to a minimum and infected plants are removed as soon as they are identified. The main disadvantage of this crop system is the initial high investment and the technical background required to produce under protected conditions. However, because of its advantages such as high yield and high quality, this system will in the future be the best option to produce high quality habanero pepper for fresh consumption.

Concluding Remarks Habanero pepper production in Yucatán is in a transition process, from being for many decades a rather small crop within a local market consumption to a global internationally demanded crop that is retailed fresh or processed in large amounts. Hot food is increasingly popular in North America (U.S. and Canada), Europe, and Asia. This market opportunity will benefit Yucatán habanero farmers and processors if they are capable to respond in time and in an organized manner to the current and future international demand.

Yucatecan Habanero Recipes
By Nancy and Jeff Gerlach
Note: All recipes are hot to extremely hot.


Salpicon (“Little Pieces” Salsa)

The first time we were served this salsa we were surprised by the use of radishes, which added not only flavor, but also an interesting texture to the salsa. For variety, add some diced tomatoes or avocados.

  • 1 fresh habanero chile, stem and seeds removed
  • 1 small red onion, diced
  • 8 to 10 radishes, thickly sliced
  • 3 tablespoons bitter orange juice or substitute 3 tablespoons lime juice, fresh preferred
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

Combine all of the ingredients except the cilantro and allow to sit for an hour to blend the flavors. Toss with the cilantro and serve. This salsa should be used within to to three days.
Yield:1/2 cup

Bitter Orange Juice

  • 1/2 cup grapefruit juice
  • 1/4 cup orange juice
  • 3 tablespoons lime juice

Mix all of the ingredients in a glass bowl and let stand at room temperature for 2 hours. Use within 24 hours.
Yield: 3/4 cup

Salsa de Aguacate (Avocado Sauce)

This rich sauce goes well with any poultry dish.

  • 3 fresh or canned tomatillos
  • 2 avocados, peeled and pit removed
  • 1 fresh habanero chile, stems and seeds removed
  • 6 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • Salt to taste

If you are using fresh tomatillos, remove the husks and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes in water to cover or until they turn light green and are soft. Drain and discard the water.
Place all of the ingredients in a blender or food processor and puree, adding a little water if needed to make the sauce smooth and creamy. This sauce doesn’t keep.
Yield: 1 1/2 to 2 cups

Salsa de Jitomate Yucateca (Yucatecan Tomato Sauce)

This simple sauce, the basis for any number of Yucatecan dishes.Roasting the vegetables before using them is typical in the Yucatán and definitely imparts a distinctive flavor. Traditionally a molcajete (stone mortar and pestle) is used to puree the vegetables but a food processor or blender works just as well.

  • 1 fresh habanero chile, roasted, stems and seeds removed, chopped
  • 4 medium tomatoes, roasted, peeled and chopped
  • 1 small onion, roasted, peeled and chopped
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano, Mexican preferred
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

Place the chiles, tomatoes, chopped vegetables, and oregano in a blender or processor and puree until smooth.
Heat the oil and saute the sauce for about 5 minutes. Salt to taste. The sauce will keep for a week in the refrigerator.
Yield: 2 cups

Sikil-Pak (Pumpkin Seed Dip)

This recipe is most likely based on a very early Mayan sauce. It can be served as a dip with crisp fried tortillas or as a table sauce and accompainment to grilled foods. It will keep for a couple of days in the refrigerator.

  • 2 medium tomatoes, roasted and peeled
  • 1 fresh habanero chile, roasted, peeled, stem and seeds removed, minced
  • 2 cups toasted pumpkin seeds, finely ground
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
  • 2 tablespoons chopped onions
  • Salt to taste

Cover the tomatoes with water, bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Drain.
Place the tomatoes and chiles in a blender or food processor and puree until smooth.
Stir the tomatoes into the ground seeds until the sauce is the consistency of mayonnaise. If the sauce is too thick, thin with water.
Add the cilantro, onions and salt to taste, and let sit for an hour to blend the flavors. Serve at room temperature.
Yield: 1 to 1 1/2 cups

Coctel de Camarones Yucateca (Yucatecan Shrimp Cocktail)

We loved the way Yucatecans served seafood cocktails in tall parfait glasses with a thin sauce that was more like a juice. The chopped onions, cilantro and habaneros were served separately so that everyone could add just as much or as little as they wanted.

  • 2 large tomatoes, roasted, peeled, seeds removed, chopped
  • 1/4 cup bitter orange juice (see recipe above) or substitute 1/4 cup lime juice, fresh preferred
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/2 cup minced red onion, divided
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 pound cooked shrimp, shelled and deveined
  • 1/4 cup minced fresh cilantro
  • 1 fresh habanero chile, stem and seeds removed, minced

Put the tomatoes, orange juice, and oil in a blender or food processor and puree until smooth. Stir in the sugar and 1/2 of the onion and season with salt and pepper. Simmer for 10 minutes and then cool.
Fill parfait glasses with the shrimp and add the juice until covered. Place the remaining onion, cilantro, and chiles on a plate and serve on the side.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Sopa de Frijoles Puerco (Bean Soup with Pork)

This hearty soup could also be served as a stew. Just add hot tortillas, jicama and orange salad, and you have a whole meal.


  • 2 cups black beans
  • 1 pound boneless pork, cut into 1 1/2-inch cubes
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 fresh habanero chile, stem and seeds removed, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon dried epazote
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro


  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 12 radishes, chopped
  • 1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1 fresh habanero chile, stem and seeds removed, chopped
  • Juice of 2 limes

Cover the beans with water and soak overnight. Remove the beans, measure the water and add enough water to make 6 cups.
Saute the pork along with the onions and garlic in the oil until the onions are soft.
Add the pork to the beans along with the remaining soup ingredients and simmer until the meats and beans are both tender, about 11/2 hours.
Combine the garnish ingredients.
Remove the pork and beans with a slotted spoon and place them in the center of a warmed platter and arrange the garnish on the plate. Serve the bean liquid in soup bowls and let people add the meat, beans, and garnish to their bowls.
Yield: 6 servings
Note: This recipe requires advance preparation.

Chiles Rellenos de Mariscos (Chiles Stuffed with Seafood)

We enjoyed these unusual rellenos in a restaurant in Ticul set up behind the owner’s home. Although this recipe calls for a mixture of seafood, a single ingredient such as shrimp works just as well.

  • 1/4 cup minced onion
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 fresh habanero chiles, stems and seeds removed, minced 1 tablespoon butter or margarine
  • 1 pound mixed cooked seafood, such as shrimp, scallops, and calamari, diced
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano, Mexican preferred
  • 1/4 cup of your favorite tomato/habanero based salsa
  • 4 fresh poblano chiles, roasted and peeled
  • Flour for dredging
  • 3 eggs separated
  • 3 tablespoons flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • Vegetable oil for frying
  • Salsa de Jitomate Yucateca (recipe above)

Saute the onion, garlic, and habanero in the butter until softened. Toss with the seafood, cilantro, oregano, and salsa.
Make a slit in the side of each poblano chile, and stuff the chiles with the seafood mixture. Dredge the chiles with the flour.
Beat the egg whites until the form stiff peaks.
Beat the yolks with 1 tablespoon water, flour, and salt until thick and creamy. Fold the yolks into the whites.
Dip the chiles in the mixture until covered and then fry in 2 to 3-inches of oil until they are golden brown. Drain.
Yield: 4 servings

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