FUKUSHIMA – A northeastern farming village that saw demand for its produce plunge after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear crisis has found a way to reinvigorate its image — challenging people to try soft-serve ice cream laced with locally grown hot peppers.
The village of Hirata, 45 kilometers southwest of the meltdown-hit Fukushima No. 1 plant, suffered a slump in its sales of asparagus and other vegetables due to radiation-related fears, even though it was not designated an evacuation area by the government.
Facing a dire situation, three farmers began growing habaneros after taking a liking to what they described as the “cute” appearance of the little chili pepper and thinking it may appeal to customers, said Tetsuya Kono, who manages a roadside stop that sells foods and other local products to travelers.
But it soon turned out that cultivating the bright red plant did not make business sense, as the pepper is generally too hot for Japanese tastes. The habanero, famous for its devilish heat, is usually raised in Latin America.
The Hirata farmers tried adding the chili to their miso and retort curry bags, but sales remained sluggish and the peppers piled up.
“Is there a product that uses a lot of habaneros?” they asked themselves.
That question inspired the creation of habanero-flavored soft-serve ice cream in 2015.
The farmers decided to serve up varying levels of pain; customers who can cope with the “hellishly spicy” level are treated to the ice cream for free.
As word about the ice cream spread through social media, people willing to take the challenge soon began showing up from other parts of the country.
So far, some 330 people have tried the ice cream and 90 percent have finished it — with various reactions.
Some, their eyes watering, seem on the verge of crying but stubbornly soldier on. Others seem to relish it.
Making the ice cream is somewhat of a trial. Workers wear goggles and masks when sprinkling the chili powder on the ice cream, which is done in a dedicated enclosure made of cardboard boxes.
The number of farmers in the area cultivating habaneros has since grown to 12 and producers are now able to sell them for ¥470 ($4.2) per kilogram, compared with ¥250 in 2014.
While promoting itself as “the spiciest village in Japan,” asparagus and other vegetables remain the flagship products for Hirata.
“Habaneros are merely a way for the village to advertise itself,” Kono said. “We hope this will lead more people to visit Hirata and buying our vegetables.”