Ají dulce

Capsicum chinense
Ají dulce grown in Massachusetts for sale at a farmers' market in New Bedford, Mass. (Photo by Maria Moreira)
Ají dulce grown in Massachusetts for sale at a farmers' market in New Bedford, Mass. (Photo by Maria Moreira)
Author(s): 

Frank Mangan and Zoraia Barros

Introduction

http://Figure 3. Ají cachucha at a retail market in Cuba in 2016. (Photo by Frank Mangan)Ají dulce (Capsicum chinense) is a small, light to dark green pepper that turns red, orange and to a lesser extent yellow if left long enough on the plant to mature. The market will accept fresh ají ducle in any of these colors. In Puerto Rico, it is known as ají dulce, ajicito or ajíes (sweet pepper and two words for small pepper, respectively, in Spanish) (Figure 1). In the Dominican Republic, it is also known as ají gustoso or ají cachucha (tasty pepper, and cap-shaped pepper, respectively, in Spanish) (Figure 2). In Cuba it is known as ají cachucha (Figure 3). (The price for the ají at this market in Havana Cuba on May 25, 2016 is 10 Cuban pesos/pound, which translates to 40 US cents/pound.)  Ají ducle has the shape and size of a habanero pepper (Figure 4) without the intense heat. Unlike many other countries in Latin America, hot peppers are not commonly used in the cuisine of Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, or Cuba; however, there can be some ají dulce fruit that is pungent, most likely due to cross pollination with habaneros or other C. chinense peppers. Spicy ají dulce has become a serious issue for sales of ají dulce in markets in the United States. Many Latino consumers and markets in the US have become circumspect of ají dulce due purchases of spicy ají ducle which has negatively impacted sales. Some consumers have switched to other sweet peppers as a substitute, such as cubanelle and bell peppers, due to the concern that the ají ducle in the market could be hot (Mangan, personal communications from customers in Latino markets in Massachusetts in 2015).

Ají dulce is used to season dishes in Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic and Cuba. One of the most common uses is as an important ingredient for sofrito (Figure 5), a fragant, savory mirepoix used in several Latin American cuisines.

Ají dulce, like all peppers, has its center of origin in the tropical Americas and will die with a frost (Figure 6). In fact, it is now known that ají dulce, and all Capsicum chinense peppers, have their center of origin in the Brazilian Amazon (Brown, et. al. 2013). Researchers have established that it was the Spanish colonists who brought C. chinense from what is now Peru to Mexico and the Caribbean. In Mexico and the English-speaking Caribbean islands selection was for high heat (e.g. habanero and scotch bonnet) and in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean Islands selection was for sweetness.  In spite of the fact that ají ducle is originally from the Amazon it grows well in the Northeastern United States, as do most pepper varieties.

In the tropics, ají dulce can grow as a perennial (Figure 7)), as can many pepper types, although most of the commercial production in tropical regions is with annual systems similar to the Northeastern United States.

Figure 1. Ají dulce, labeled as ajíes, for sale at a market in San Juan Puerto Rico in 2015. (Photo by Frank Mangan)
Figure 2. Cubanelle peppers, ají cachucha and ají gustoso, left to right. Fruit was taken from a wholesale market in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, 2015. (Photo by Frank Mangan)
Figure 3. Ají cachucha at a retail market in Cuba in 2016. (Photo by Frank Mangan)
Figure 4. Ají dulce (left) and habanero (right) for sale in a market in Worcester Mass. in 2015.
Figure 5. Six traditional fresh ingredients used to make sofrito. Starting on the bottom and going counter clockwise:  onions, cubanelle peppers, garlic, cilantro, culantro and ají dulce. (Photo by Frank Mangan)
Figure 6. Ají dulce at the UMass Research Farm in Deerfield Mass. damaged by a killing frost on October 17 (Photo by Frank Mangan)
Figure 7. An ají ducle plant, planted two years earlier, at a commercial farm in the Dominican Republic. The plant was still producing fruit. (Photo by Frank Mangan in 2015)

Production

As with all peppers grown in the Northeastern United States, ají dulce has to be started as a transplant. In some areas in the tropics peppers are direct-seeded in the field, although transplants are commonly used. One important difference compared to the production of bell peppers (C. annuum) in the Northeastern United States is that ají dulce seeds should be started earlier in the greenhouse, as is the case as other types of C. chinense such has habanero and scotch bonnet.

1997, several ají dulce varieties donated by the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez were grown at the UMass Research Farm in Deerfield. In this project, ají dulce plants started in a greenhouse on April 1, when we usually start bell peppers in Massachusetts, yielded less than 3,000 lbs./acre of marketable fruit whereas ají dulce started on March 9 yielded over 13,000 pounds/acre of marketable fruit. In 2015, we again evaluated selections of ají dulce from the University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez at the UMass Research Farm. We started the seeds in the greenhouse on March 10 and we averaged 27,461 lbs./acre over four types (Figure 8) and 38,018 lbs./acre in a high tunnel with the same four types (Figure 9). The yields of the four types grown outside yielded the following (lbs./acre):  “Carnaval”, 34,190 (Figure 10), “Amanecer”, 32,458 (Figure 11), “Encanto” 23,970 (Figure 12) and “Pasión” 19,226 (Figure 13). The yields were higher when grown in a high tunnel (lbs./acre): “Carnaval”, 49,144, “Amanecer”, 41,471, “Encanto”, 38,238, and “Pasión”, 23,221. The higher yields in 2015 compared to 1997 are probably due to the use of black plastic, raised beds and drip irrigation in 2015; in 1997, the plants were grown in the field without plastic, drip or raised beds.

A breeder at the University of Massachusetts found pepper mild mosaic virus (PMMoV) on several selections of ají dulce peppers from Latin America. This virus will not cause a complete loss of yield, but it can decrease yields. A greater concern is that the virus is seed-borne, so saving seed from infected plants is not recommended. Although the virus can spread from plant to plant through rigorous mechanical efforts, casual handling of infected fruit and seed followed by handling of non-infected seed does not transfer the virus to the clean seed.

Plant spacing

When we grow ají dulce at the UMass Research Farm we plant two rows of peppers on black/degradable plastic with one foot in the row. Our plastic is laid six feet on center (6' from the center of one row of plastic to another adjacent row), for a total plant population of 14,480 plants/acre (Figure 14).

For information on production and management of ají dulce, refer to the New England Vegetable Management Guide and click on "peppers", keeping in mind the differences in production compared to Capsicum annuum types mentioned above.

Figure 8. Ají dulce being harvested at the UMass Research Farm in 2015. (Photo by Frank Mangan)
Figure 9. Ají dulce growing in a high tunnel at the UMass Research Farm in 2015. (Photo by Frank Mangan)
Figure 10. Variety “Carnaval“ grown at the UMass Research Farm in 2015. Seed provided by the University of Mayagüez. (Photo by Aline Marchese, 2015)
Figure 11. Variety “Amanecer“ grown at the UMass Research Farm in 2015. Seed provided by the University of Mayagüez. (Photo by Aline Marchese, 2015)
Figure 12. Variety “Encanto“ grown at the UMass Research Farm in 2015. Seed provided by the University of Mayagüez. (Photo by Aline Marchese, 2015)
Figure 13. Variety “Pasión “ grown at the UMass Research Farm in 2015. Seed provided by the University of Mayagüez. (Photo by Aline Marchese, 2015)
Figure 14. Transplanting ají ducle at the UMass Research Farm in late May, 2015. We use biodegradable plastic laid 6 feet on center with double rows on the plastci and 1' in the row for a total plant population of 14,480 plants/acre. (Photo by Frank Mangan in 2015)

Post-Harvest and Packing

We wash ají dulce peppers in a dunk tank with chorine added to achieve 150 ppm of available chlorine (Figure 15). We don’t use a vegetable washer with brushes, which we use with larger peppers, since the ajís are too small and fall through.

Optimum storage temperature for storage of peppers is 45 – 50 F° and relative humidity between 90 – 95%. See Table 16: Handling Produce for Higher Quality and Longer Market Life

Packing

Ají dulce imported from outside the US is normally packed in a mesh bag with 25 pounds (Figure16). We pack them in a ½ bushel wax box with 10 pounds (Figure 17).  Ají dulce is traditionally packed cellophane-wrapped trays at supermarkets and solid loose in farmers’ markets (See Figure 19 below). At a farmers’ market in Puerto Rico, one farmer sold them in mesh bags (Figure 18) for $2.50 lbs. (Figure 19) in June of 2016.

Figure 15. Ají dulce being washed in water treated with chlorine at 150 PPM at the UMass Research Farm in 2015.
Figure 16. Ají dulce imported from the Dominican Republic in a 25 lbs. mesh bag at a wholesale market in Chelsea Mass. in 2014. (Photo by Frank Mangan)
Figure 17. Ají dulce harvested at the UMass Research Farm packed in ½ bushel wax boxes with 10 pounds in each box. (Photo by Frank Mangan)
Figure 18. Ají dulce packed in mesh bags at a farmers market in Puerto Rico in 2016 Photo by Gus Schumacher).
Figure 19. Ají dulce packed in mesh bags at a farmers market in Puerto Rico in 2016 Photo by Gus Schumacher).

Seed Sources

Currently there are no hybrid seed of ají ducle available for sale. In the Caribbean, farmers will save seed from mature ajies to plant their next crop, and farmers in Massachusetts are doing the same. Here is a video that shows some tips for saving seed from mature ají ducle fruit, one in English and one in Spanish (en español):

Video on how to save ají dulce seed (in English)

Vídeo sobre cómo guardar semilla de ají Dulce (en español)

Marketing and Pricing

Ají dulce is popular among Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Cubans, so you want to focus on markets that cater to these populations. Given the importance of “bodegas” (Latino corner stores) in Latino culture, we have marketed ají dulce through brokers in the Boston Terminal Market (“Chelsea Market”) which distribute to these corner stores. Many of these bodegas will sell relatively small amounts of ají dulce and thus it may be cost effective to deliver to individual bodegas (Figure 20). Supermarkets and large independent Latino stores located in neighborhoods with large Latino populations also carry aji dulce.

Pricing

In 2015, the wholesale and retail prices of ají dulce in the Northeastern United States increased dramatically after USDA imposed a quarantine on 18 fresh fruits and vegetables coming from the Dominican Republic, including all peppers. We saw retail prices as high as $13.99/pound in Markets in Massachusetts before we started harvesting in late July and after our last harvest in mid-October (Figure 21). On January 6, 2016, APHIS announced that it has lifted the quarantine on all crops coming from the Dominican Republic, including peppers, “provided the commodities are produced in one of the listed provinces to export to the United States” 

We expect the price of ají dulce to be much lower in 2016 compared to 2015 due to the return of much cheaper ají dulce from the Dominican Republic.

We recommend the use of enterprise budgets to assess the cost of production for any crop a farmer is growing and use this information to establish a viable retail or wholesale price. This file shows the enterprise budget prepared for ají ducle grown at the UMass Research Farm in 2015.

Figure 20. Owner of a bodega in Lawrence Mass. with one case of locally-grown ají dulce. (Photo by Frank Mangan in 2015)
Figure 21. Ají ducle from Puerto Rico for sale at a large ethnic markets in Springfield Mass. The price is $13.99/lb. (Photo by Frank Mangan in 2015)

Nutritional Information

UMass Nutrition Educators in Lawrence Massachusetts created a healthy, culturally-appropriate sofrito recipe using fresh ingredients:

References

Brown, C., C. Clement, P. Epps, E. Luedeling and S. Wichmann. 2013. The Paleobiolinguistics of domesticated chili pepper (Capsicum spp.). Ethnobiology Letters, Society of Ethnobiology. Volume: 4:1‐11.

Charles Clement. Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazônia, Manaus, AM, Brazil. Personal communication. Manaus Brazil. November 24, 2016.

Found in:

Dominican Republic
ají gustoso; ají cachucha