Habanero chilis are typically green to orange, with a sharp, fruity smell and an intense heat. They are the typical chili in Caribbean and Yucatanian cuisine, as well as Nigerian and Camaroonian. They work very well with tropical and fruity flavours, such as pineapple, lime, and bitter orange. Because they are so intensely spicy, however, you must exercise extra caution when working with them.
As with all chilis, the spiciest parts of the habanero are the seeds and the white membrane on the inside. Before cooking, you’ll usually want to remove these. Be careful!
If habanero touches your skin, your skin will burn for minutes or hours. If you proceed to touch your nose, lips or eyes with habanero fingers, you’ll be in pain. This can even extend to putting in contact lenses the next morning. If you pee, or have intimate contact (with yourself or anyone else) with habanero on your fingers — you’ll regret it. Believe me. Many of the people who’ve lived at Normandie have stories.
Any utensil that touches the habaneros will be dangerous until it’s clean. If you try to wash habanero off surfaces or cutting boards with hot water, you’ll breathe in spicy steam and it will hurt. When you fry habanero in oil, it will make the air spicy.
So. What can you do? You can use gloves when cleaning and chopping habaneros. Or, use plastic bags as makeshift gloves. Wash cutting boards and utensils thoroughly with cold water and soap before you touch them.
Despite these horrible warnings, habaneros are worth it (Eliseo kind of disagrees). They have a distinct flavour that’s difficult to find substitutes for (although the Peruvian aji is pretty good). It’s essential for serving with cochinita pibil, for Camaroonian roast goat, and in Caribbean jerk. Nothing in Yucatan is served without habanero salsa. The famous yellow Caribbean hot sauce requires habaneros, and it makes an excellent pineapple salsa, too. Use them fresh, or flame roasted; finely chopped, or pureed into a sauce.
Like all chilis, habaneros are native to the Americas. Capsicum chinense is one of several species species in the genus that’s commonly cultivated (there are something like 3-5 species in cultivation, most of them capable of hybridizing to various degrees). C. chinense also includes the scotch bonnet chili, which is a different shape from habaneros.
The name, habanero, comes from “Havana”, attesting to its popularity in the Caribbean. But it seems to have been cultivated in Peru as long as 8000 years ago, and it’s distributed widely in the more tropical regions of the Americas.
We’ve had indifferent success growing habaneros in the garden. They’re usually stunted plants, with only a few fruit. They like slightly acidic soil, humidity and heat, so they’re probably not ideally suited to our Mediterranean climate.