Food & Drink

Mellow Habanero: Award-winning hot sauce from an unlikely corner of Japan

by Nick Sinclair and Oscar Boyd

Contributing Writers

Taku “Tak” Kondo’s elderly neighbors in rural Hyogo Prefecture were a little confused when he first began growing habanero peppers in his fields. “It’s all rice and black soybeans around here,” he says as we walk through rows of habanero plants.

Though it is the end of the harvest, several bushels still hang heavy with ripe peppers. Kondo bends down to pick a handful, the peppers’ vibrant orange hue advertising their readiness to be turned into hot sauce.

In 2002, a fateful encounter with the pepper on the Okinawa island of Ishigaki first sparked Kondo’s interest in habaneros. “I had always liked a bit of spice growing up but I had never come across a pepper with such a fruity aroma,” he says as he gently splits open a ripe habanero with his hands.

They may smell sweet enough — not that dissimilar to an apricot — but Kondo’s peppers pack a punch. A spoonful of his most mellow sauce has one of us spluttering into the recorder. He is wise to wear a mask, goggles and gloves whenever he cooks up a batch.

Kondo saved the seeds from that first habanero, and grew some more on a patch of land next to the house he had built for his family in the Ishigaki jungle. “It was a three-year summer holiday” he says of his time on the island, where he lived with his wife and newborn child, surviving on the monthly income from a food truck he lent to a friend in Tokyo. He returned to the Japanese mainland in 2004 to take over his mother-in-law’s farm.

With a young child at home, spicy food was out of the question, but he started making his own hot sauces to get his fix of fire, adding them to his own plate. He gradually turned his fields over to habaneros and, by combining the homegrown chilies with dried mango (“I have a sweet tooth”), he was able to achieve a more rounded taste, to rave reviews from his friends. In 2005, he started selling his sauces at the monthly handicraft market at Kyoto’s Chionji temple and his business expanded from there.

Thirteen years later, Kondo now cultivates 1,800 habanero plants to make his award-winning organic hot sauces, which are sold under the Mellow Habanero label. Half of his sales are to private Japanese customers, and another 20 percent to restaurants and cafes here, but he has attracted a devoted following overseas, too.

“In 2011, I set up an Instagram profile and for the first time discovered there were loads of small producers like me in the States,” he says. The hot sauce industry is booming in the United States, with much of its growth spurred by rising demand for boutique sauces. According to market research firm Euromonitor, U.S. hot sauce sales grew by 150 percent between 2000 and 2014.

Around the time Kondo set up his Instagram, Noah Chaimberg, a former chef who managed a portable hot sauce tasting stand in New York City, before founding the Heatonist chain of hot sauce stores took notice of this habanero enthusiast on the other side of the world.

“Tak and I first connected a few years ago when we noticed that we were liking a bunch of each other’s pictures on Instagram,” says Chaimberg. “We tried to chat but didn’t get far until a friend was visiting me and translated for us. He sent over some samples and we loved them!”

Heatonist has carried Mellow Habanero sauces since its first brick-and-mortar store opened in Brooklyn three years ago following a Kickstarter campaign. International acclaim for the sauces soon followed: In 2017, Kondo’s Hop in Heaven sauce placed first in the “medium” category at the World Hot Sauce Awards in Louisiana. The sauce added hops and Japanese sanshō peppers to an existing sauce called Heaven, popular for its high habanero content of 70 percent. “It left a big impression on the judges,” Kondo says. “They had never come across a sauce with beer hops in it before.”

Unfortunately, fans won’t be able to get their hands on either “Heaven” or “Hop in Heaven” this year. The summer’s string of floods, heatwaves and typhoons decimated this year’s crop and, where Kondo would ordinarily expect to harvest 600 kilograms of habaneros in a good year, he will only manage 60 kilograms in 2018. Production will therefore be limited to his milder, less concentrated varieties, though for most fans, these will prove spicy enough.

Mellow Habanero will bounce back. Kondo plans to rent additional fields in Nagasaki Prefecture to boost his crop, and stockpile three year’s worth of peppers to avoid a similar scenario in the future. He will also be making a fact-finding trip to the U.S. next year to visit local producers and explore the possibility of building a small factory near his farm to handle a higher volume of peppers.

First he will visit the Adoboloco Hawaiian Hot Sauce Co. in Maui, before dropping in on his friends at Heatonist for some advice on which other producers to visit. Plans for a collaboration with the Heatonist team on a yuzu citrus and habanero sauce this year were sadly put on hold due to the poor harvest, but are expected to resume next year.

Although Kondo currently manages the whole process himself — from cultivation and production to bottling, label design and sales — he acknowledges that he may need additional staff to help with his expanded reach. What about his aging neighbors? Could he entice any of them with a sample of his sauce? “No … I’m not sure they could survive it,” he says, laughing.

Mellow Habanero sauces are available for order at www.mellowhabanero.com.