Tomato paste, or domates salcası is probably the most fundamental Turkish cooking condiment. Closely followed by red bell pepper paste (biber salcası). Both thick deep-red pastes enclose the essence of summer and its flavors – that of tomato and red bell pepper. You would add both to possibly every third Turkish dish: aromatic red lentil soup and bulgur pilaf, Turkish take on tabbouleh (kısır) and nearly any Turkish stew you can think of.
Definitely a secret ingredient of a Turkish home cook red bell pepper and tomato pastes give your dish rich flavor of the vegetable that was cooked for a few hours. Which it was. But not by you. Both are prepared late summer or early autumn, tomato and red pepper abundance season. Tomatoes are skinned, purred and can boiled down with salt for a few hours until they are seriously reduced.
You can also opt for the slowest cooking possible and leave the tomato puree on the sun for a few days. Only requirement is to stir the emerging paste occasionally before it finally gets that deep red color and consistency of a thick bread spread. Well, there maybe another imperative too – I am thinking about the realities of our farmhouse – to keep it safe from the flies, cats, dogs and farmhouse inhabitants wondering around.
Tomatoes staying under the sun for a few days would have undoubtedly fermented unless the royal amount of salt you add to the tomato pure upfront to preserve it rather than let your tomatoes become wine. You can go in the same fashion about red peppers but I must admit they are best when roasted, skinned, seeded and then purred.
My first introduction to both red bell pepper and tomato pastes happened at the occasion of making imam bayildi, popular Turkish dish of stuffed eggplants cooked in the substantial quantities of olive oil. The stuffing is made of onions which need to be energetically kneaded with salt and lemon juice, then joined by the fresh herbs – parsley, dill and mint and eventually fortified by the generous spoonfuls of red bell pepper and tomato pastes.
In my normal life red bell pepper paste plain did not exist. And I have never had enough trust in tomato paste. For me it was a always store-bought commercially produced can of known amount of tomato puree but also of artificial colorant, starch and preservatives. In Turkey I seemed to have found a real deal: tomato paste that you can still source from the people who honestly make theirs of only tomatoes and some salt.
Meanwhile in my stuffed eggplant preparation onions, lemon, fresh herbs – all willingly released their juices and aromas responding to the pressure of my palms. But it were the pastes – tomato and red bell pepper – which gave the mix completeness. Bitter and sour was accompanied by the sour and sweet. White, yellow and green took the much needed red splash into it. My flight from Moscow had landed in Istanbul only 2 hours ago yet I felt I had already been here forever as I orchestrated this dance of the most fragrant ingredients under the guidance of my cooking instructor.
I ended up bringing a box of each paste home but already knew it was not reasonable to come back to Istanbul every time I needed to refill the stock. I thought I would move here instead of forever longing for the cooking condiment unobtainable elsewhere.
Now living in Istanbul I source mine very carefully. Needless to say commercial production methods have interfered into the traditional recipes and artificial colorant, starch and preservatives may be used to increase the shell-life of the pastes and push down the cost of making.
That is why in Istanbul I get mine from a trusted vendor, my pickle seller in Kadıköy. And on the countryside one of the farmers anne has been shopping from for ages supplies the pastes. “His daughter-in-laws are making it“, explains anne. I scoop a deep-red mousse of roasted peppers, taste and confirm with content: yes, this is why I live in Turkey.
Here a few practical tips for finding and storing decent red bell pepper and tomato paste in Turkey:
- Stay away from supermarkets: local markets are best places to source. A good reliable spice vendor or pickle vendor will carry some un-branded varieties they source from a small-scale (or artisanal, how they say nowadays) producer.
- Always taste before buying: Ask for a sample and trust your palate: there is not much science in tasting. The taste should be that of the vegetable – tomato or red bell pepper – only salty. If you feel it tastes something else or the feel in the mouth is too starchy – look elsewhere
- Store your red bell pepper or tomato paste in a glass container in the fridge: it is best to spread a spoonful of olive oil if you are not planning to use the paste for a long time