It doesn’t matter if you are at a hotel, restaurant, market, street-food stand or the home of a local in Yucatán, Mexico — if salsa de mesa, or table salsa, is not there when you sit down, you can count the minutes until someone quickly mashes some together or opens the refrigerator to pour some into a bowl.
In Yucatán, people drizzle it over, spoon it onto and dip into it everything except dessert. It is so ubiquitous that, like table salt, it needs no other descriptor. But everyone knows what it is made of: the small but mighty habanero chile, roasted and mashed with just enough sour orange juice and a pinch of salt to make it salsa-ble.
Recipe: Tomato-Habanero Salsa
Within the vast and diverse foodways of Mexico, chiles shape the personality of regional cuisines. In Chihuahua, it is the fresh chilaca chile, which is called chile Colorado when dried. In Sonora, it’s the fresh or dried chiltepín. In Michoacán, it is the dried pasilla, and in Veracruz, the jalapeño. In Yucatán, the habanero is king. If it is not already part of a dish, the obligatory salsa de mesa stands by to add zing and heat.
“The habanero is the life of our cuisine,” said Elio Xicum, a chef who grew up and still lives in Yucatán. “If our food doesn’t have habanero in it, or at least on the side of it, it is halfhearted.”
The habanero originated in the Amazon basin, said Wilson Alonzo, a chef and culinary historian in Halachó, Yucatán. It spread to the Yucatán Peninsula, and by colonial times had become a major export to Cuba. Its name comes from the Cuban province La Habana.
“Here, it took root, thrived, its flavors and heat fully developed to its prime,” Mr. Alonzo said. “We have the conditions that led to our having the denomination of origin,” he added, referring to the protective status given to products from particular countries and regions.
The habanero’s consumption was largely confined to the Yucatán Peninsula until about a decade ago, but the chile has grown popular across Mexico, where it is used mainly for salsas. In the last few years, it has become trendy north of the Mexican border as a marketable flavor for snacks and pantry products like potato chips, chile crisp and precooked rice.
But much more than heat makes the habanero a culinary charmer worth bringing into your home.
Shaped like a small lantern no more than two inches long, the habanero comes in deep, vibrant colors, primarily green, yellow, orange and red. It is shiny and a bit waxy, with a smooth skin and broad shoulders that fall into curvy ridges on its sides. Its playful looks are deceiving: The heat is much more concentrated at the top, along its veins and in its seeds, but dissipates at the tip.
The habanero tastes fruity, citrusy and flowery before it hits you with a lingering kick that delightfully tickles the tongue. The habanero is least ripe when green, and its taste a bit more bitter and acidic. As it ripens, its color goes to yellow, then orange and finally red. The riper it is, the fruitier it gets, becoming increasingly fragrant and sweet, and losing its acidity.
After spending time in the Yucatán Peninsula, I have taken cues from Yucatecan cooks for taming the habanero’s heat and making the most of its varied flavors. The first is to add habanero a little bit at a time as you cook, instead of all at once. You can always add heat, but it’s hard to remove. The second is that there’s no need for gloves unless you are cooking with heaps of them. Just wash your hands with soapy water and you are good to go.
Recipe: Habanero Chicken and Broccoli
When fresh, habaneros have a crisp and pungent taste as well as a watery crunch. One of the best ways to prepare the fresh chile is to stem, seed and finely chop it, then mix it with a sliced raw onion, a bit of lime juice and salt. This makes a phenomenal condiment for tacos, tortas or tostadas, or to eat as a spicy pico de gallo. You can also purée a fresh habanero to use in sauces, soups, stews or marinades, as in my recipe for roasted habanero chicken with broccoli, which is barely spicy but lets the flavors of the habanero shine through.
Recipe: Tangy Romaine Salad With Habanero-Avocado Dressing
Roasting or charring habaneros pushes their sweet, fruity perfume forward and adds a layer of rustic smokiness, which you can taste in a crunchy salad with a creamy avocado and habanero dressing. I also like to roast or char and then cook down the habaneros further for a multipurpose tomato salsa.
Many Yucatecan cooks opt to leave the habanero whole in salsas, stews or soups. Doing so infuses dishes with some of its flavors, but none of the heat, and allows eaters to hunt for the chile and break it into their own serving for heat if they crave it. The flavor and spice are so transfixing, people will fight to get the cooked habanero onto their plates.
After seeing so many habaneros eaten this way, I understood why the salsa de mesa is an essential Yucatecan staple. Try it on anything. Well, everything except dessert.
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