On a recent trip to Merida where I joined Chef Mario in one of his cooking classes at the Los Dos Cooking School, we had a long conversation about habanero chilies. I had heard an interesting fact on a US news show that stated the Yucatan is the largest producer of habanero chilies. That fact floored me and inspired a little investigation.
This is what I found out from Mario. A distributor in Felipe Carrillo Puerto, just south of Tulum, collects over 4 tonnes of habaneros from small farms in the area per week. This does not include other farmers throughout the region this is only one small area. This distributor is hoping to export 40 tonnes of habanero chilies weekly by 2018. The demand in Europe, Asia and the Americas is growing and they specifically want Yucatan Habaneros grown by small farms.
But why? Of all things, why the habanero chili. Before I get into the popularity of the Habanero, it is important to look at other popular exports that come from the Yucatan. The Yucatan is already famous for its honey, and exports 90% of its honey to Europe. It is such an important export it sealed the deal on a Mexican Supreme Court decision to stop any GMO seeds from entering the country. European buyers and local honey producers wanted a guarantee that the Yucatan remained GMO free. They got their wish!
Habaneros and the protection of this export is now following suit. Mario was quick to explain why, and it all comes down to flavor. The flavor of the Yucatan habanero grown by small producers in the region is unlike any chili he has ever tasted. When compared to large producers in other countries, and even other states in Mexico, the Yucatan habanero seems to get it right each time.
It is a combination of the alkaline soil, lime stone, hot sun and farmers who love to cultivate this crop. Currently habaneros are grown by small milpas, local term for a small farm. A habanero plant can produce 5 kilos/11 pounds of chilies per plant. Distributors are responsible for collecting habaneros from each small farm and exporting in large quantities. This means local Mayan families and communities have a direct financial impact from the increased demand in habaneros.
Mario grew up on habanero chilies and loves the smell, taste, feel and heat of this local prized chili. He reviewed the history of the chili with our class, which I found fascinating. This is the short version of hist explanation. Habanero seeds have been traced back as far as 6500 BC. It was the Spanish that started the mass distribution of the chili to Europe and Asia when they settled in Mexico. There are a few varieties of habanero chilies grown in the Yucatan, with the most famous called the Yucatan White habanero. You will find orange and green habaneros in local markets as well.
When handling habanero chilies it is recommended to use plastic gloves to protect the skin and eyes from its fiery effects of capsaicin.
This is a great salsa recipe that uses radishes for texture and flavor.
• 1 fresh habanero chili, stem and seeds removed
• 1 small red onion, diced
• 8 to 10 radishes, thickly sliced and diced
• 3 tablespoons bitter orange juice from Seville oranges or substitute 1 tablespoons lime juice, 1 tablespoon orange juice and 1 tablespoon grapefruit 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 two to three days.
Yucatecan Tomato Salsa
This simple salsa is the basis for any number of Yucatecan dishes. Roasting the vegetables before using them is typical in the Yucatán and is the magic technique that brings the distinctive flavor. Roasting really means burning so don’t be shy. In the Yucatecan kitchen a molcajete (stone mortar and pestle) is used to crush and blend the vegetables but a food processor or blender works just as well.
• 1 fresh habanero chili, 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 oregano is best
• 2 tablespoons vegetable or olive oil
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
Place the chilies, 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.
Fiery Roasted Habanero Salsa
• 6 unpeeled garlic cloves
• 6 whole habanero chilies
• 1 tablespoons juice from 1 grapefruit
• 1 tablespoons juice from 1 orange
• 1 tablespoons juice from 2 limes
How to Make it
In a skillet roast the garlic cloves and habanero chilies till their skin is burnt. Put the ingredients in a bowl and let them cool until you can peel off the burnt skins. Remove the stems and seeds from the chilies. Place the roasted garlic and habaneros in either a blender or molcajete, juice from the citrus fruits and the pinch of salt. Blend until smooth. This salsa can be used for up to 5 days.