The Habanero is one bad chile. Habanero in spanish means "the one from Havana" or "Havana-like." Ironically, the chile is rare in Havana but is common in the Yucatan area in Mexico. Other common names for the habanero are "Scot's Bonnet" or "Scotch Bonnet."

This chile pepper belongs to Capsicum chinense. The chile is cultivated commercially in Mexico and recently in the southwestern United States. The habanero plant averages between 1 and 4½ feet in hieght depending on the variety and climate. In tropical conditions the habanero can grow as a perennial. Habanero "trees" have been found over 8 feet high!

The fruit or pods are small, typically 1 to 2½ inches long and 1 to 1½ inches wide. The mature pod can be red, orange, yellow, white or even chocolate in color. The pods are HOT. The heat level of the pods vary widely depending on conditions such as climate, stress, maturity, etc. Nevertheless, they are usually very HOT and should be approached with respect and maybe even fear. Average heat rating is around 200,000 to 577,000 Scoville heat units. Not impressed? The typical jalapeño pepper is rated at 4,000 SHUs.

The mighty red savina habanero pepper is listed as the hottest chile in the world, as of this writing (early 2001). Red savina has topped the scale at a tongue blistering 577,000 SHUs.

This chile has a long and interesting history. Habanero seeds and dried pods have been unearthed in a cave in Peru that date back 6500 BCE. A Dominican priest, Francisco Ximenez, wrote in 1722 that the habanero was so hot that a single pod would "make a bull unable to eat" — not to mention mad as hell.

Never, ever cut or prepare habaneros with your bare hands. Use gloves. Also, wash your hands throughly, even if you use gloves. If you rub your eyes or touch any other "sensitive" areas of your body you will be sorry — they don't make pepper spray from habaneros for no reason.

I had my first experience with a habanero pepper when I and a friend were trying out a new Mexican restaurant here in Columbus last week. My fajitas came with a little bit of very-mild diced tomato-and-onion salsa that was seasoned only with cilantro ... or so I thought.

Midway through the meal, I speared a small, corn kernel-sized green cube -- which I took to be an unassuming stray bit of bell pepper -- and popped it into my mouth. And bit down.

The first fraction of a second, I got a faint sour-apple taste and a crunchy texture. Just enough for my brain to register that, no, this wasn't bell pepper. This was an entirely alien vegetable I'd just put in my mouth.

And then I got the heat.

Bear in mind that I like spicy food. I put sriracha sauce in practically everything, and I'm a regular wasabi junkie. When I go out for sushi, I'll take a dab of that wonderful green paste, let it melt on my tongue, and ride the wave of euphoric heat that makes me feel like my entire head's going to explode right before those lovely endorphins kick in. Yeah, that's the stuff.

But this -- oh my. That little cube of pepper made me feel like I'd taken a shot of napalm followed by a Bic chaser. Tears started streaming down my face.

"Are you okay?" my friend asked.

"Oh my God, this is hot," I replied. And then I said it again. Several times. The repetition helped minutely, if for no other reason than it gave my tortured tongue some air.

I took a spoonful of sour cream, hoping the fat would cut the burn. It didn't. I sipped my iced tea, which if anything seemed to make it worse.

"Can I get you a beer?" my friend asked. "Or a glass of milk? I hear milk helps."

"No, I'll be fine." I thought of the scene in Fight Club where Jack's just shot a hole in the side of his own face.

And I was fine, though it was probably fifteen minutes before I could eat anything again. I imagine that only a shot of Strawberry Surprise could be more intense than habanero.

But that's an experiment I'll leave to someone else.

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