In 1976, Albert Ayeni moved to the United States to pursue his PhD in agronomy at Cornell. Yet something was missing from his new country’s cuisine. In his native Nigeria, spice was so ubiquitous that “If you had not eaten food with pepper in it, you really hadn’t eaten.” In a country where spice isn’t readily available, says Ayeni, “You don’t feel complete.”
Decades later, that feeling motivated Ayeni when he had the opportunity to lead an agricultural project as professor of plant biology at Rutgers University. Only one crop would do: hot peppers.
Thus was born the Rutgers Exotic Pepper Project, which Ayeni and fellow Rutgers professors Tom Orton and Jim Simon founded in 2010. Working out of two substations of the university’s Agricultural Research and Extension Center, the projects’ researchers and student interns adapt hot pepper varieties not traditionally grown in New Jersey to the region’s climate, and develop new strains of their own.
The Rutgers program aims to meet the culinary needs of New Jersey’s diverse population, particularly its growing Asian-American and Latino communities, while benefiting local farmers.
In 2017, the group unveiled the pumpkin habanero, a squat orange variety with a “tangerine” taste and a mild burn of only 50,000 heat units on the Scoville scale, as compared to the roughly 300,000 heat units of the popular Scotch Bonnet. Created by planting African and South American habanero strains in the same field and allowing them to naturally cross-breed, the pumpkin habanero’s mild burn is a good start for people unused to heat, says Ayeni.