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When in Mexico...
On this week's episode of Top Chef, the cheftestants are tasked with managing the heat of the mighty habanero pepper to see how it can smoothly spice up their dishes without overpowering them. Today's largest producer of the pepper is Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, which also happens to be in the backyard of where this season's finale will take place. Since it's the star ingredient this week, let's take a closer look at this pepper, below.
1. A Kick in the Mouth
Habaneros rate very hot, so hot in fact that in the episode Padma Lakshmi reveals that, "The habanero is a 140x hotter than your typical jalapeno."
The sensation of having your mouth on fire after consuming such a hot pepper comes from the collection of compounds known as capsaicin. Helix, a science website that explains it best, when the pain sensation in the mouth gets routed to the brain, it also releases endorphins, a pain reliever, and dopamine, responsible for a sense of reward and pleasure. If you eat enough spicy foods, there's a euphoria similar to a "runner's high." Cheftestant Shirley says on this week's episode that sometimes she'll take a bite of a habanero in the morning to get the adrenaline going and trigger that alert feeling. It's a great pick-me-up, if you're feeling brave.
2. Its Rich History
The habanero is a mainstay of the Yucatan Peninsula, but its pods have been found in Guitarrero Cave in Peru back around 8,500 years ago. The ancient Mayans were thought to have incorporated it into the dishes they were making and even cross breeding stronger and bigger species for consumption. By about 1,000 B.C., many varieties were domesticated and spread throughout South and Central America, and the Caribbean.
3. Not Traditionally Grown Anymore
Due to the worldwide popularity and demand, there had to be a shift in how habanero peppers were grown. Hydroponic growing, or cultivating plants without soil, constant repotting and without the sun, uses a water and filter system to expose the plant's roots to natural minerals. Fatalii.net, an online grower's guide, says hydroponics is the fastest, easiest and most producive way of growing chilies and cultivators can yield higher amounts of peppers in a shorter period of time.
4. Some Like it Hot
Some enjoy the heat from a habanero, for everyone else there's now an equally delicious alternative: the habanadas. The habanero is prone to genetic tampering to create stronger, fiercer flavors, but Michael Mazourek, a Cornell University plant breeder, created this heatless pepper for his doctoral research. The idea here is to give the diner the experience of eating the pepper and experience its melon-like texture, something that was harder to do previously due to the heat of the habanero. Eating one of the habanadas is a mind altering experience because one is expecting heat, but what it really does is defies expectations and builds the anticipation inside the eaters' mouths.
5. A More Sinister Use
Because the habanero is a powerful producer of that mouth-burning sensation, its use in personal safety devices is an attractive option for manufacturers. Don't get too close, the effects in a mace spray can cause burning and itching depending on where it lands on the body. Interestingly enough, it can also be used to create an organic pest-deterrent for those critters that like to munch on your plants.