Is Aleppo Pepper That Hot? Truth About Red Pepper Flakes

Istanbul Food Markets Turkish Pantry

Red Pepper Flakes on Sale

Maraş, Urfa, Antep – these are the names you can find on the price tags of the piles of bright red pepper flakes at the spice stalls of Eminönü, bustling Istanbul food market.  All three are somewhat known culinary destinations in Turkey. Maraş for its thick ice-cream made with salep, powered root of wild orchid, Urfa for its spicy kebabs, Antep for its knowledgeably grown pistachio and skillfully made baklava.

However it is Aleppo, a small village at the border with Syria which has received international fame for its peppers. It came as an absolute revelation to me that Aleppo pepper has become the next big thing in the US culinary world. Is Aleppo pepper really that hot?

Aleppo what?“- asked me the spice shop keeper at a back street of Eminönü. I have been shopping from him for a while and after reading about the Aleppo pepper trend I inquired if he sells it. – “Look, we have Maraş and Antep pepper. And Urfa of course but it’s a different thing <Urfa peppers are dried partly open partly closed so they come out with darker color and smoky flavor>“. He proceeded with weighting a 1.5 kilo Maraş red pepper flakes to an elderly patron waiting to be served.

Red pepper flakes is a staple spice in Turkey. It is sprinkled by default on any food and often times in the traditional Istanbul restaurants and eateries you can find a bowl of varying size filled with red pepper flakes next to the regular salt and black pepper. Gently hot (at the bottom of the Scoville scale with 10,000 points, or 3 times less than Cayenne pepper) and wonderfully fragrant red pepper flakes immediately brighten up any dish. Just sprinkle them on your kebab or slice of pide (Turkish pizza), mix with olive oil and dip your bread in, throw in sizzling butter and then season your red lentil soup, add to your çaçik for color and what not.

Red pepper flakes are the most common use of hot peppers in Turkey. First peppers are dried: often times threaded and hung on the sun – and then seeded and crashed. Now, red pepper flakes are different from crashed red pepper because in the latter case the seeds are thrown in the mix too.

There are different degrees of fineness in red pepper flakes texture and the least coarse flakes are called ipek meaning “silk” in Turkish  – run your hand through a pile of fine red pepper flakes and you will understand what I mean. Obviously, for more refined meals you want to get that ipek quality.

You can buy red pepper flakes in Istanbul for the price ranging from 8 to 50 TL (4.5 to 28 USD) for a kilo, or 2.2 pounds, with Aleppo pepper often sold at hefty premium. Can the quality of the peppers itself range that much as the price does?

More often than not it is not the quality of pepper that explains the price but the presence of salt and oil in the flaky pile. It surprises me when spice enthusiasts note that red pepper flakes have a salty and oily note. There is no note. There are obvious additional ingredients. Little salt and oil increases weight of peppers and hence helps get the selling price of this commonly used spice down and volumes up (or margin up, depending on the decency of a given vendor). During the cooking salt and oil will be added anyways so the little trick does not hurt. Apparently, irrespective the region the red pepper is coming from it can be sold with salt and oil added or without any. Or so I thought.

Here is the Aleppo pepper“, tells me the seller at the spice shop with the most beautiful stall in Eminönü, just outside of Istanbul Spice Market. After demonstrating the peppers from the piles at the front of the shop he pulls me inside and opens a drawers with yet another red pepper flakes.”No salt, no oil, highest quality. This is Aleppo,” – he ensures.

Aleppo pepper takes its name from the ancient city Aleppo at the Northern Syria, 45 kilometers east of the Syrian-Turkish border. For centuries they have been as humble and as much used as other local peppers in the area (Antep, Urfa, Maraş). Until they were discovered by renown cookbook author Paula Wolfert who published The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean (by the way, fantastic must-have) in 1994. According to Los Angeles magazine, this is how Aleppo pepper surfaced to the attention of American chefs, home cooks and foodies of sorts.

To the demand came the supply and spice vendors, quick on their food, started the bustling trade of this allegedly highest quality pepper. Enterprising Istanbul Spice sellers would try to ensure you of special qualities of that very special Aleppo pepper. In fact, just like with most food fads you should not rush to get it. Ask your spice vendor whether there is oil and salt in that highly valuable item they are trying to sell. And ask whether they sell Maraş or Antep red pepper flakes, yet undiscovered by any major food author and hence more fairly priced.

Update 5 July 2013: During my trip to Antakya, Hatay, just a border across from Aleppo (Halep, in Syria) I went on a quest to find out about the famous pepper. No single spice vendor at Uzun Çarşi has ever heard of Aleppo pepper; the primary type of pepper available there was the local Hatay variety. Did Paula Wolfert get her sources right?

email

{ 12 comments… add one }

  • Marica Bochicchio October 11, 2012, 10:02 am

    I bought with you this good red Pepper! I love them… Antep , Aleppo and the best for me the Urfa. Ciao, Marica

    Reply
    • Olga Tikhonova December 2, 2012, 12:34 am

      Yep, Marica I was impressed with your enthusiasm to try all kinds of peppers available here! I am a big fan of smoky Urfa too and sneakily use it in the dishes where it is just not supposed to be.

      Reply
  • Steve Wilder December 1, 2012, 11:38 am

    Isn’t Aleppo pepper pul biber? If not, what’s it called in Turkish, Aleppo biber?

    Reply
    • Olga Tikhonova December 2, 2012, 12:36 am

      Steve, ‘pul biber’ literally means ‘pepper flakes/flaked pepper’. Aleppo pepper is a regional variety. In Turkish it is called ‘Aleppo biberi’, yet if if you mention it – as I have written above – some spice sellers will have no idea what you are talking about.

      Reply
  • bergamot August 3, 2013, 1:55 pm

    Which is the shop you referred here that sold Aleppo pepper?

    Reply
    • Olga Tikhonova Irez August 3, 2013, 6:50 pm

      I let the heroes stay anonymous) If you are up for the theater you’ll recognize the actors when you see them, if you are after high quality spices you should head out to Arifoğlu

      Reply
  • deana@lostpastremembered August 4, 2013, 6:08 pm

    What variety of pepper is used to make Aleppo pepper? I know is is a type of annuum but is there a name for them?

    Why do you think the locals don’t call it ALeppo? Is it a name foreigners give it that they have adopted just to be helpful? Should peppers go by Maras and Antep? Does Aleppo refer more to the place it comes from rather than a specific type of pepper?

    Reply
    • Olga Tikhonova Irez August 5, 2013, 4:03 pm

      Why do you think outside of Turkey there is a notion of Turkish bread that refers to just one of many types breads available in Turkey? Even better, why Turkish yogurt is called Greek? These (+the Aleppo pepper) are examples of innocent culinary ignorance and someone’s marketing efforts. When I was in Antakya, just a border across from Aleppo, a shopkeeper laughed in my face when I asked him about Aleppo pepper, “We send out pepper there and it’s our pepper from Hatay that is kind of famous”. So much to the Aleppo pepper legend sustained by the enterprising Istanbul Spice market vendors!

      Reply
  • kathy November 10, 2013, 11:12 am

    HI – am just discovering Turkish spices – though I live in Jordan for a very long time and cook a lot of local dishes, many of which are related to Turkish ones….. I had a thought about the name of the peppers — Aleppo (famous here for fantastic cooks and dishes) — is called Halab and things from Aleppo are “Halabee” – so maybe the Turkish name for this specific origin would be closer to that than Aleppo? Meanwhile, my great revelation this week is urfa biber, which my husband brought back from a recent trip to Istanbul – wow!

    Reply
    • Olga Tikhonova Irez November 10, 2013, 10:19 pm

      Hi Kathy, yes Aleppo pepper or Haleb biberi is just the same in every regard. Glad you are enjoying urfa pepper: it’s def one of my most favorite spices!

      Reply
  • Jason Baker December 11, 2013, 6:32 am

    Hi everyone-
    I am looking for a reliable source for viable Alleppo/halaby/pul biber pepper seeds that I can grow out. If you can help please contact me at jebaker7777@gmail.com
    Thank you in advance.

    Reply
  • Pierre Hamel March 12, 2014, 3:32 pm

    Hello M. Baker

    I did order my seeds from https://www.buckeyepepper.com/products/seeds/Aleppo

    They where from http://fordtufff.wordpress.com/2014/02/23/aleppo/ (directly collect in Allep)

    there is also http://www.refiningfirechiles.com/aleppogallery.html, I had a good germination

    Reply

Leave a Comment