I am generally not a big fan of hot peppers. I grow a Jalapeño or two every year so I have some to throw in salsas and a few other dishes like stewed beans and tomatoes. And I keep some dried red chilies for Chinese dishes and some red pepper flakes from Korea for kimchee. I hear all the hype about habaneros and have a feeling that I am missing out on something. That is why is was intrigued when I ran across a category of peppers called “spice peppers” in the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange catalog. They include the usual Hungarian Paprika pepper in their spice pepper collection, but they also offer two South American varieties of C. chinense called Aji Dulce (literally “sweet pepper”) and Trinidad Spice. Both are described as habanero-type peppers with all the fragrance and flavor but without the heat. Sounds like just what I need, so I bought seeds of both. Unfortunately, I killed the Aji Dulce starts so this year there was only Trinidad Spice in the garden.
SESE describes the Trinidad Spice as “a spice pepper with the flavor of a Habanero but with only a trace of heat in the seeds. Tall, bushy plants with light green foliage with 1" x 1½" bright yellow peppers.” They are not to be confused with the Trinidad Scorpion Butch T or the Trinidad Maruga Scorpion peppers, which are hotter than Bhut Jolokia and are absolutely lethal. Unfortunately the two plants in the raised beds have just sat there and have not even flowered yet. The single plant in-ground is now a nice bushy plant about two feet tall, despite wrestling for space with the huge zucchini next door. The flowers appear under the foliage canopy and seem to come out of the axes where leaves grow from the branches. The peppers, about 1.5 inches long, are shaped like a habanero and start off light green and ripen to a bright yellow.
So now in the name of science I have to taste these things. To be absolutely sure there is a great distance between these peppers and the Trinidad Scorpions, I did another search and found a description of these peppers on, where else, habaneromadness.com. They describe three types of mild or sweet habaneros: Aji Dulce, Venezuelan Sweet, and Trinidad Perfume. The Trinidad Perfume is described as “a mild chili pepper with very little to no heat. It is a habanero type and produces pods similar to a typical orange habanero pepper, about 1 to 1.5 inches in length and 1.25 inches wide. They mature from green to a bright yellow color. When cooked, they give off a perfume-like scent, hence the name. In flavor, they have a mild citrus-like taste, similar to a habanero, but with smoky undertones.” That seems to match what I am growing, so this is another name for Trinidad Spice. Sure sounds good! So I went ahead and tasted one, first raw, then sautéed in a little grape seed oil. They do indeed have a citrus scent and a citrusy, fruity taste, almost orange like, whether raw or cooked. I also tried the membrane and seeds and no part of these peppers is hot. It will be interesting to try these in some actual dishes.
I am really disappointed I did not get to try the Aji Dulce peppers this year. They are a key ingredient in many of the Caribbean and South American cuisines that don’t use a lot of hot peppers (Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Cuba). In fact, the Puerto Rican version of sofrito specifically uses the Aji Dulce peppers. The SESE catalog describes them this way: “Aji Dulce has the same shape, size, color and aroma of Habanero, but is sweet, spicy, and delicious, with only a trace of heat. The fruits are highly aromatic and the flavor is unusual and complex, with overtones of black pepper and coriander, and undertones of other spicy flavors.” They are Habanero shaped, 1-2 inches long, and mature from green to orange to red. They also require a long growing season, quoted as 115 days, starting off slowly and growing rapidly later in the season (around here that’s usually a couple of weeks before first frost). In South America they are grown as perennials (wish I could do that).
Interestingly, the University of Massachusetts Extension has actually done research on Aji Dulce, which they describe as growing well in Massachusetts, although most peppers in the markets are imported. Maybe I can find some in some Spanish markets here. The key finding from their research (not really surprising given its 115 days to maturity) is that the C. Chinense peppers need to be started indoors at least three weeks before the typical date for C. annum. That means starting seeds in late February, keeping them under lights and potting up when necessary so you have large, vigorous plants at plant out time in June. And I have an extra three weeks to kill them. The other fact from the study is that most Aji Dulce seed from the Caribbean is infected with the Pepper Mild Mosaic Virus (PMMoV). The SESE catalog says it sourced its seed from Donna Hudson in Tennessee, but since my starts died, I have no idea if they are contaminated. The Trinidad Spice definitely are healthy.