Thursday, October 25, 2007

A Taste of the Yucatán

Here are a couple of the habanero salsas that we’ve encountered - I wanted to share these with you. I really only got the ingredients – the amounts of each ingredient weren’t given – you’ll have to experiment to find the right balance for each of you.

Salsa habanera de Hopelchen
We were served this simple salsa in a small food stall just on the outskirts of the plaza. Aside from the local Mennonites coming into town for provisions, we were the only outsiders in this town. We finished the entire bowl of this salsa.

Habanero chiles
Red onion
Vinegar (I think sugar cane vinegar was used – white vinegar may be a bit acidic for this – if you are using white vinegar, you may want to dilute it with water and toss in a pinch of sugar)
Roast the chiles over a flame, or you can roast them in a hot pan. Put the roasted habanero(s) into a blender with some red onion, cilantro and salt.

Salsa habanera con naranja agria
There is a type of sour orange that was introduced to the Yucatan peninsula and has become a main part of Yucatecan cuisine. It is used in a number of main dishes, and in many of the habanero salsas, the acidity and orange flavors turn the heat down a bit and round out the flavor. Obviously this ingredient is not in your local market – you can probably substitute a combination of orange juice and lime juice to get close to it.

To make this salsa, roast the habaneros over flame or in a hot skillet. Toss them into a blender with the fresh squeezed juice of the sour orange and some white onion and salt. Blend. You could also add cilantro if you are so inclined.

The simplest salsa is to slice the habanero very thinly and to soak these in the juice of the sour oranges. Leave these to marinate together for a couple of hours before serving.

Let me know if you give these a whirl.

Oro del Yucatán

Before I go into the wild pepper and some great local varieties that belong to the C. annuum species, I feel compelled to say something about the iconic pepper of the Yucatan peninsula, the habanero.

The habanero belongs to a different species, Capsicum chinense, and when you bite into one, you can tell it is miles apart from the comparatively milder C. annuum varieties. Comparing their relative pungency, the habanero is approximately 50x more pungent than your average jalapeño (Habaneros have been measured at 300-500,000 Scoville Units, compared to 5-10,000 for jalapeños). I "sample" all the peppers we encounter in the field and this time I was a bit timid when it came to biting into the pepper. I think I got lucky and didn't hit a real firecracker here, but it was still hot.

A relative newcomer to the peninsula, the habanero was introduced in post-conquest. Of the important peppers cultivated here, it is the only not to have a Mayan moniker. The others (which I will discuss later on) have names such as maax (pronounced mä sh), x’catic (shkätek) etc. However, the popularity of the habanero has increased and surpassed these local varieties, with a huge international market and following. Whereas these other local varieties have certain dishes and specific culinary uses, the habanero is solely used in salsas.

The demand internationally for habanero products has increased and the Yucatan ships thousands of tons of habanero paste and powder for culinary use all over the world. The following photos are from a habanero processing plant that I was able to visit. This one plant exports over 500 tons of habanero paste and powder every year.

In this photo, these ladies are sorting the habaneros by color and destemming them as well.
The immature habaneros are green, then turn a red or orange color depending on the variety.