For Dan Barber, the celebrated chef of the New York City restaurant Blue Hill, each course of a meal is an opportunity to tell a story. One of these stories is about a pepper — an aromatic, orange habanero without any heat.
Diners are served their heatless habaneros lightly flavored with salt and pepper. They take a bite, then wait for the feeling of a burning mouth or watering eyes that never comes. "When [our diners] question things they know to be absolute — habanero equals intense heat — it gets them to think about eating in a different way," says Barber. "It's very important to jujitsu expectations. You end up being more conscious of what you're eating."
Blue Hill is the biggest buyer of these peppers, also known as "Habanadas," which are sold through distributor Baldor Foods. The story Barber hopes to tell with these chiles is that all foods — from apples to yams — were created through a series of conscious decisions. Some plants thrive because of their disease-resistance, growing conditions, or high yields; for others, it's taste that has caused their popularity. Behind each of the foods we take for granted as finished products are tens or hundreds of generations of genetic tinkering and selection.
"We selected the habanero for heat because that's what was coveted. But what if you wanted to experience the melon-like experience of a pepper?" Barber asks. "You can't do it with a habanero — you can with a Habanada."
The man behind the Habanada is a Cornell University plant breeder named Michael Mazourek, who created it as part of his doctoral research. He got the idea after discovering a rogue heatless pepper whose genetics behaved very differently from a naturally sweet pepper like the Bell. This pepper had somehow lost whatever made it spicy in the first place. So, Mazourek wondered, what would happen if they created a habanero without the heat?
Their parent pepper, the original heatless variety, "tasted pretty bad," Mazourek recalled, "so we cross-pollinated it with a habanero, and after a couple more generations we started to get some non-hot but aromatic peppers." Mazourek had a finished variety of the Habanada as early as 2007, but it was only a few years ago that the pepper started making its way out into the world.
In 2014, the Habanada was one of the plants featured in the Culinary Breeding Network Variety Showcase, an annual event where chefs are paired with a new food variety and left to experiment. Nora Antene, chef of Portland, Oregon's Le Pigeon restaurant, got the Habanada which she turned into a summer sherbet.
Today there are two routes to get your hands on Habanadas — grow them from seed in your backyard or look for them in a restaurant. Currently, Ark Foods, a grower that helped popularize the Shishito pepper (another low-heat pepper), is the only commercial grower. Its peppers are sold to restaurants through distributor Baldor Foods. Ark Foods founder Noah Robbins says he's a big habanero fan and knew he wanted to grow heatless habaneros as soon as he heard about them. "They fit really nicely into what we're all about, which is the flavor of a vegetable rather than the yield or disease resistance."
While there are so-called pepper wars being fought between growers trying to beat the Carolina Reaper for the title of hottest pepper in the world, many pepper lovers are looking for something new, says Judith Finlayson, author of The Chile Pepper Bible.
A normal, unaltered habanero can get up to 300,000 on the Scoville scale – which measures levels of capsaicin, the chemical that causes the burning sensation we call "heat. The Reaper registers at over 2 million. Reaper-eating challenges on the Internet often end in disaster for those who attempt it. Common side effects include: vomiting, sweating, stomach cramps, blisters in the mouth, and all around agony. Potential physical illness aside, "You get to a point where it's so hot that you aren't tasting anything but heat," Finlayson says. "You're in a state of numbness from the heat."
Robbins sees the growing popularity of the heatless habanero as a sign that people want new experiences with a pepper. Taking away the heat, Robbins explains, is almost like getting the essence of a pepper.
As with most matters of taste, everyone describes the Habanada a little differently. Some say it has a citrus flavor, while others cite floral notes or even a hint of guava. But in some ways the main payoff of the Habanada is the anticipation it builds inside eaters' mouths. "Imagine as though you're tasting a habanero, so your taste buds feel as though there will be a rush of heat — but it never comes," Robbins describes.
For most of the last 50 to 100 years, Barber says, the chef has been left out of the conversation of which plants were valuable. That decision has instead been in the purview of grocers, farmers, distributors, and others whose main concern wasn't taste but practicality. As a result, Barber says, we've dumbed down taste, flavors, and diversity for the sake of the industry that wants things to be controlled. "Chefs don't want that control. Just as a painter wants different colors of paint, chefs want different flavors of food."