The Habanero Chili: A Spicy Export from Mexico

The habanero chile, which boasts a fiery heat and a rich, flavorful aroma, is a Yucatan Peninsula export that has gained international popularity.

The Habanero Chili: A Spicy Export from Mexico
The habanero chile is the hottest chile used in Mexican cuisine. Photo by Krista Bennett on Unsplash

People in Mesoamerica stopped being nomads about 5,500 years ago and started living in small villages. These villages grew into towns of a certain size, and towns grew into cities over the centuries. Agriculture was the main reason why people stopped moving around in groups and started living in one place. People could plant, grow, and harvest different kinds of plants once they knew how they reproduced. They could also keep some of what they grew in case they needed it or wanted to trade with the next village.

The first people who lived in Mesoamerica learned to grow squash, corn, beans, and chili. Together, they would provide the right amount of nutrients and could be used to make a lot of different, very interesting dishes. Chili became a very popular medicine in Mesoamerican medicine over time because of its expectorant, digestive, and astringent effects, among others. During the 15th and 16th centuries, chili was part of the tributes that the countries that had been conquered had to send to the lordships of the Triple Alliance—Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan—either dried or fresh, depending on how far away the place of production was from the central highlands.

The History and Spread of the Habanero Chili

Chili peppers, on the other hand, are not only from Mesoamerica. A lot of them came from other parts of the Americas, like the Antilles, the Amazon and Orinoco basins, and the very north of the Andean zone. When Europeans came to the New World, they learned that chili peppers were there. People say that Christopher Columbus gave them the name pepper, which is what most of the world still calls them because their spicy taste reminded him of pepper.

On his second trip, one of his crew members took a few chili peppers with him and took them to Spain, where they may have been spread to other parts of Europe. When the Portuguese took over Brazil in 1500, they met the native types of chili peppers. They quickly loaded them onto their ships and started trading them in Asia, where they were well received. Because of this, large areas in India, Thailand, Vietnam, and China were soon turned into plantations.

The habanero chile is not from Mesoamerica, despite what you might think. The Mayas grew at least seven kinds of chili, five of which were hot and two of which were not. All of them are still around today, and each has its name in Mayan. But the habanero is not part of this group. Most likely, it came from South America, either in the Amazon region or where Brazil, Bolivia, Argentina, and Paraguay meet today.

From there, it would have been brought to the Yucatan by island-hopping, either by the Spanish after they took over or by the native people of the Antilles who traded with them. Some people don't even rule out the idea that some Caribbean Indians who went on exploration trips with Europeans could have brought the plants with them.

So, the habanero chile of the Yucatan peninsula is unique because it grew best in that area, which had the right amount of heat and humidity. In a short amount of time, there were plantations almost everywhere. The habanero chile fit right into the food of the peninsula, which changed a lot between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries to become mostly what it is today. The natives added crops like chaya, spices like achiote, and cooking methods like pibil, which is nothing more than cooking food in earth ovens.

The Spaniards added a lot of ingredients like pork, sour orange, and red onion, as well as ingredients like vinegar and spices like pepper, and cooking methods like frying, which wasn't done before the Spanish arrived. The habanero chili would end up being the best addition to most of the dishes that came about when Mayan and Spanish ingredients were combined. However, it would be taken out of the Dutch smugglers' dishes, like stuffed cheese, and put into the peninsular repertoire.

The Habanero Chili: From Planting to Spiciness

The habanero chili, whose scientific name is Capsicum chinense Jacq., is the fruit of one-meter-tall trees with a leathery trunk that grows in two different ways: one trunk grows two branches, and each branch grows two more. The seeds are started in the right way so that the seedlings can grow well. The seedlings are then moved from the greenhouses where they were grown to the field. Even though habaneros can be planted at any time of the year on plots of land that are usually no bigger than 400 m2, the best time to plant them is between June and September, when the sun, heat, and summer rains help them grow better.

It takes three months for the white or purple flowers with black reproductive organs to turn into fruit, and another three months for the fruit to get big enough to pick by hand. In recent years, some indigenous communities have found that growing habanero peppers gives them a way to live, if not comfortably, at least without too much trouble. This is thanks to the development of lab varieties that are resistant to pests and the ability to get loans to build greenhouses.

For a long time, habaneros were the hottest peppers on the Scoville scale. That is the scale that tells how much capsaicin, the thing that makes chili peppers spicy, they have. In 1912, an American pharmacist named Wilbur Scoville came up with this way to measure how spicy something is. The habanero chili can have between 100,000 and 350,000 units of heat.

To get an idea of how hot this is, consider that the most common chiles in Mexican cooking (jalapeños, guajillos, pasillas, and poblanos) have between 1,000 and 10,000 units of heat, while the spiciest ones (serranos and de árbol) can reach up to 23,000 units. This means that one habanero chile is as spicy as fifteen very hot arbol chiles.

Most habanero peppers are eaten fresh, either on their own or as part of other dishes. Some factories process chiles and sell them dried, as powder, flakes, in cans, as a dressing, or as a paste. In recent years, there has been a rise in the number of different kinds of habanero chili sauce, which can be made with a vegetable, like a carrot, or on its own. If this is the case, the most common thing to do is to sort the sauces from mild to very hot.

A habanero chili sauce is a good example of a mild sauce. Recent, worldwide trends toward eating more spicy foods have made habanero sauces a great export item. Chile's National Producers Council says that the world's demand for spicy fruit grows by 13% every year. The main places that buy Mexican chiles are the United States, Canada, Guatemala, Japan, South Korea, Italy, and Germany.

Habanero Pepper Production in Mexico and Global Trade

About 9,000 tons of habanero peppers are grown every year in seventeen states in Mexico. But nine out of ten of the crops are grown in the states of Yucatán, Campeche, Quintana Roo, and Tabasco. Although the production of the latter state does not have a declaration of denomination of origin, since 2012, it has been the top producer of habanero peppers in the country, making more than 4,500 tons per year. Yucatán, with more than 2,500 tons, is in second place, followed by Campeche and Quintana Roo. The amount of land used for farming in the three peninsular states varies from year to year, but it's usually around 800 hectares, of which 500 are rain-fed and 300 are irrigated. Each of these 500 and 300 hectares produces a little less than ten tons.

As the number of people who eat chili peppers has gone up, there have been a lot of fights on world markets. Some countries, like China, Pakistan, India, and Peru, take advantage of their low production costs to send chili peppers to Mexico. Once there, they are sold as if they were made in Mexico, but at a lower price, which is an unfair trade practice. In the same way, there has been a growing trend in recent years to protect plant species outside of the country where they were developed.

This hurts the original growers of the crop because they have to pay royalties when their products are sold. That is, collecting seeds in one place and moving them to another, where they can grow on their own and then be sold in nearby markets. And not only sold but also, in bad faith, sold as if they came from the place where they were originally grown, which would raise their price on international markets.

The Habanero Chili of the Yucatan Peninsula: Protection of the Appellation of Origin

Getting a declaration of protection for appellations of origin is one way to stop unfair competition. In the case of habanero peppers, the process started in 2005 when the company Chile Habanero de Yucatán went to the Mexican Institute of Industrial Property and asked for protection of the appellation of origin. Then, on September 8, 2009, a new application was filed. It was published in the Official Gazette of the Federation on June 4, 2001, and the declaration of protection for the appellation of origin "Habanero Peppers from the Yucatan Peninsula" was issued. This protects the habanero chile fruits and their derivatives- produced in Yucatán, Quintana Roo, and Campeche and marketed fresh, in paste, dehydrated, powdered, as a sauce, or pickled.

At the end of May 2012, the Ministry of Economy put out a draft of the Official Standard NOM-189-SCFI-2012. Organizations gave feedback that it was important to say where the damage on a habanero chile came from, such as from pests, insects, birds, or bad handling during harvesting and packaging. This directly affected which category (extra, first, second, or industrial) each fruit could be put in. After the problems were fixed, the Official Mexican Standard NOM-189-SCFI-2012, "Habanero Pepper from the Yucatan Peninsula. Specifications and test methods" was issued at the end of October 2012, and it was published in the Official Journal of the Federation on November 30, 2012.

Getting the appellation of origin made sure that no fruit that wasn't grown in one of the three peninsular states could be called "Chile Habanero de la Península de Yucatán" The last two steps to make sure the habanero chile takes off are to set up a regulatory council and one or more certifying bodies. For such tasks, the Yucatan Peninsula Habanero Chile Regulatory Council was officially formed.

Several Problems to Be Solved with The Habanero Chili

The first and most important is to find a way to get rid of the pests that usually attack habanero plantations that don't involve using agrochemicals that are against the law in the countries where the habanero is going to be sold. In the short term, the goal is to make chili peppers that aren't dangerous and can be sold anywhere people want them. The second problem the regulatory council will have to deal with is paying attention to the new markets that keep opening up for the product.

China, which has the biggest market in the world but is hard to get into because of language barriers, is a good example. This comes with a risk that has already been seen with other Mexican agricultural products: if the increase in foreign demand doesn't come with the necessary increase in supply, there could be shortages and higher prices in the market that isn't being served, which is usually the local market because producers prefer to fill foreign orders because they bring in more money.

The best time for the habanero is undeniably now. Globalization has led to a trend toward an experimentation in the world's cuisines that has never been seen before. This means that it is now possible to combine flavors and smells that were unthinkable until recently. Most of these are about how spicy something is. Spicy habanero chili peppers are taking the culinary world in exciting new directions.