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?