Can this man create a more potent jalapeno?


Special to The Globe and Mail

Published Tuesday, Jul. 14, 2015 10:24AM EDT

Last updated Tuesday, Jul. 14, 2015 10:27AM EDT


Before his retirement two weeks ago, Aziz Baameur was a farm adviser at the University of California. For the past couple of years, Baameur has been preoccupied with one particular project: the hunt for a hotter jalapeno. Here, he explains his passion for peppers and why when it comes to the humble jalapeno, there is no substitute.

Why do we need a hotter jalapeno? Why not just sub in a habanero or a Scotch bonnet?

We tend to think of peppers in terms of heat, but each chili pepper has its own unique flavour profile, aside from the level of spice. The jalapeno has a specific taste that people really seem to like. The other thing is that a habanero, for example, is almost 100,000 times hotter than a jalapeno, so if you’re going to use that in a recipe – say a salsa – you’re only going to be able to use a very small amount and the ratios will be off.

How did you first get involved in this heat-seeking mission?

It started with a casual conversation I had with one of the growers in the area. One of their challenges is that the heat in peppers is never the same across the board, depending on a number of variables. Most growers will favour one variety of jalapeno because it produces [a robust crop] in the given conditions. So they want to increase the heat without changing the variety. Not knowing any better, I said, “I’m sure I can figure it out.”

And have you figured it out?

Ha! Not yet. We have worked with different water and nutrient inputs to see if we can increase the heat of the peppers in the field. The first year, we tried stressing plants by not watering them. Last summer when we reduced the nitrogen levels [in the soil] we saw a huge increase in heat.

What’s the plan for this summer?

I have actually just retired as of July 1. I do want to continue with this project, but things have gotten more complicated and we need funding. Money is not flowing in my direction at the moment. Other things are more pressing, like [eradicating] diseases.

Why the passion for hot peppers? Are you a spicy-food fiend?

For me, the passion is in experimenting with how plants react to conditions: What happens if we do X and Y? In this particular case, it has been fun to work on a question that takes more than a few hours to solve. Growing up, my dad grew chili peppers in the house and I hated hot stuff. As I’ve grown up I’ve acquired a taste for it and I really do enjoy it.

Have you tried jalapeno ice cream?

No – I’ve heard that they’re making it, but I have not tried it yet.

What sorts of dishes go best with jalapenos?

I’ll put them on just about anything. I like them better roasted than raw. I make a lot of salsa. Couscous, tagines, omelettes. It’s not that I’m wedded to jalapenos, it’s just that I like them and this project has provided me with an ample supply.


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