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Producers of the world’s hottest chili, habanero, in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula are very curious to know what is going on with the spicy food boom in Japan.

The boom was a “big surprise for us,” said Armando Palmas, president of Padysa, the largest exporter of habanero, based in Merida, the capital of Yucatan state.

The company expects to increase production to around 3,000 tons in 2005 from around 1,500 tons in 2004, thanks to the boom in Japan, and is planning to invest $1 million in food processing machines next year.

Since summer, Yucatan’s habanero has became very popular with young Japanese as several food companies marketed snacks flavored with the chili and instant noodles.

Confectioner Tohato Inc., the pioneer in habanero snacks, unveiled its first snack, Bokun (Tyrant) Habanero, last November. It has since sold more than 25 million bags.

Habanero, known as “The King of Chili,” is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s spiciest chili. It is 10 times hotter than Tabasco sauce, and 80 times hotter than jalapeno, according to Tohato.

“Yucatan will double production of chili habanero in 2005,” said Roger Gonzalez, the secretary of region development and fishery of Yucatan state.

In 2002, Yucatan state launched a project to promote cultivation of habanero to combat poverty after the serious damage from Hurricane Isidoro.

Gonzalez said cultivation of habanero creates more employees than other products due to a large harvest of 20 tons per hectare. Corn, by contrast, only produces 1 ton per hectare.

Yucatan hopes to create new 3,000 jobs in the habanero industry for 2005.

Gonzalez said he has been very impressed by the habanero boom in Japan, adding that he never imagined such an ancient Mayan product could come into fashion in the Asian country.

“Habanero is not only a super hot chili, it’s very delicious,” said Juan Carlos Ledon, general director of Padysa.

Ledon, who used to be a professional baseball player, said his colleagues, no matter where they were from, fell in love with habanero after tasting it, and always took it home.

Asked if the boom will continue, Ledon said that depends on Bokun Babynero, a product that Tohato Inc. will put on sale on Nov. 15.

Tohato calls it a baby version of Bokun Habanero because it is less spicy.

“If (Bokun’s) baby can attract children, habanero can become a classic flavor in Japan,” Ledon said.

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