All About the Habanero Chili

The Habanero chili serves many purposes: It's a classic component of many Mexican recipes, hot sauces, and is used in its fresh form to brighten up dishes - both visually and flavor-wise. It's also a great staple when pickled with onions and lavishly slathered on tacos! This is the chili that never stops giving – so how did it come to be? Read on to learn more about the different types of Habanero chilies, their history, and how they’ve become so widespread.

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All About the Habanero Chili

Introduction to Habanero

Mexico produces a vast variety of chili types, both fresh and dried, but the queen of fresh capsaicin is without a doubt the habanero chili. On average habanero peppers contain more than a hundred times the heat of a classic jalapeño, and for a long time habanero was considered the hottest of all chilies.

We now know better, as certain subspecies and selectively bred peppers can reach Scoville levels far beyond the habanero, but for many years the habanero was the most wide-spread of the ‘super hots’. You may have heard of the Carolina Reaper or Ghost Pepper, as these are two of the more famous varieties.

Where most of these super hots satisfy an insatiable hunger for ever-stronger chilies, the habanero is absolutely bursting with fresh floral and fruity flavors that complement the heat. These supplementary flavor compounds, its texture, variety of flavor differences between habanero types combined with its delectable audible crackle of biting through its skin, are what make the habanero pepper such a versatile and beloved ingredient.

The habanero serves many purposes: It's a classic component of many Mexican recipes, hot sauces, and much more, but how did this delicious chili come to be?

History and World Travel

Habanero belongs to a species of chilies (Capsicum Chinense – more on the name later) that originates from the Amazon region of South America. An intact pod was unearthed in the Guitarrero Cave of Peru and dates all the way back to 6500bc – the habanero has been eaten for a long time. The plants were cultivated and spread wider in the region with the increasing human ability to grow and selectively breed the plants to increase their size, flavor and survival rate. The Chinense species then spread throughout South and Central America as well as the Caribbean, much thanks to Native Brazilians and Mayans.

In Mexico, the habanero is mainly associated with the Yucatan Peninsula, which is also the largest producer of the fruit, but the exact origins of this particular variety of chili has not been pinpointed exactly. There seems to be broad consensus that it arrived via the Caribbean Sea by indigenous migrants from South America and found its true home in the Mexican soil. Its name, habanero, refers in Spanish to something or someone from the city of La Habana (Havana, Cuba), suggesting importation via the Caribbean. A point worth making here is that the word habanero is written without a tilde – unlike the jalapeño – as if there is a city of "La Habaña".

Closeup of a Caribbean "Pepper Sauce" - a hot sauce made from various types of chilies including the habanero, along with salt, vinegar, garlic, and spices.

By the time Columbus reached the islands in the Caribbeans in 1492, chilies were already a staple ingredient in much of the Americas. However, Columbus was on a search for black pepper: a spice already established in finer European dining that had become increasingly hard to supply – and at much higher prices.

The traditional trading routes for black pepper had been closed off by the rise of the Ottoman Empire and this fueled the search for new ways to acquire the flavorful black nuggets. The explorations of the Europeans in South American brought back the fiery pods of flavor that we now know as chilies, but initially, it did not make a significant impact on local cuisines.

The Europeans were however much more successful in sharing the plant through their colonies and established trading routes. The Portuguese introduced chilies to India, and later Thailand, as a by-product of their colonization efforts. Within a, historically remarkably, short period of time chilies were disseminated throughout the local trading networks to much of the Asian and African continents, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe. Much of its success is thought to come from the ease of growing the plants in different climates and the sudden availability of something spicy at a price where even common folk could and would take part.

It is quite funny how the broader usage of the capsicum genus in Europe only really took hold once capsicum was reintroduced to the region, through foreign culinary traditions –Indian, Thai, Mexican, and others.

Habanero – the non-Chinese, Chinese fruit

In what has turned out to be a large scientific oversight, the habanero pepper belongs to the species named Capsicum Chinense. The Dutch scientist who categorized the habanero pepper as a part of the Capsicum Chinense species though it to be Chinese, due to its wide use in Asian foods. This is both a reminder of the habanero’s successful adaptation to different climates and food cultures, but also the tendency to overlook the Americas’ parentage of many wonderful ingredients (two other plants come to mind: vanilla and cacao). You can find in depth articles on the history of cacao and vanilla in the ingredients page under "Explorer".

Use of Ingredient

The habanero is cherished and eaten all over Mexico, but almost impossible to avoid when visiting the Yucatan Peninsula. There are a plethora of habanero-based sauces and salsas that entice locals and visitors alike. In markets, you will walk alongside wooden crates brimming with colorful displays of the fresh peppers (although orange is the predominant color).

It will not take long to find a local digging into the fresh orange habanero with only a little bit of salt to assist the snacking. Don’t worry, if that’s a step to far for you, you will find plenty of prepared alternatives. An example could be the local classic of habanero paired with radishes, cilantro and fruit juices. Or even better when this is roasted with garlic and mashed in a molcajete it becomes a sensational salsa.

In other parts of the country you will also easily find habaneros, either from Yucatan, grown locally, or prepared in bottled salsas. As the habanero pairs extremely well with numerous flavors from sweet to salty and tangy, there are countless inventive variations on the classic habanero sauce. From using the habaneros in traditional hot sauces purely for its heat to common pairings with mango, peach, or other fruits with intense sweetness. The sweetness can commonly act as a balancing flavor to the the sharp heat from the habanero – something that can also be done through lacto-fermentation. At Vera Mexicana, we make use of the habaneros in conjunction with a secret fruit vinegar which we believe provides the perfect platform and partner for the chilies to shine!

Globally the habanero or its close Capsicum Chinense relatives are increasingly available. Either fresh from Mexican soil and timely transportation through global supply chains or grown closer to the country of import thanks to the relative ease of growing this delectable fruit. Purists will argue that there are significant differences between the product available in Mexico and its cousins grown in soils far, far away. We do enjoy the Mexican variety better than any others, so we’re happy that Mexico still supplies the largest amounts of habaneros worldwide.

Capsaicin and the Scoville Rating System

The blistering heat from the habaneros (and all other chilies) come from the compound capsaicinoids present in the hot peppers. Wilbur Scoville gave name to the rating system of chili after having conducted organoleptic tests of serial dilutions of pepper extractions. In human speech this means he diluted the peppers in order to find the point where three out of five panelists were unable to detect the heat. These days we use a method called high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) to measure the level of capsaicin in peppers.

So why do habaneros and other chilies contain capsaicin?

The generally accepted answer lies in the simple truth that certain animals can taste the heat (capsaicin) and certain animals cannot taste it. We humans, like all mammals, are susceptible to the burning sensation of chilies and their chemical compounds.

The presence of capsaicin serves the purpose of a defensive mechanism – although this is somewhat mitigated by all those crazy humans who seek out and cultivate the fiery flavors on purpose.

In the same evolutionary vein, it is notable that birds are unaffected by capsaicin. Lucky for the birds – and the peppers. When bids ingest the plants, it ensures the propagation and dispersion of the plant’s seeds with help from its feathery friends.