Turkish peppers can imbue a dish with lively heat and fruity, sun-dried flavors that may also taste of earth or woodsmoke. From front to back, maras, urfa and Aleppo chilies, traditionally grown not in Turkey but just over the Syrian border.
Earlier this week, looking for some red pepper to enliven Fire-Roasted Sweet Pepper and Heirloom Tomato Soup, I was stunned to discover nine jars of flaky Turkish chilies in the pantry. Not to mention seven more cellophane packets of Turkish pepper from assorted spice merchants—and dozens of other dried peppers, ground and whole, from India, Spain, France and Mexico.
I had to ask myself: How many kinds of red pepper does a heat-seeking cook really need? After all, wouldn’t a pinch of cayenne launch the requisite fireworks?
The answer is a flat "no," especially after a day spent sampling the flavorful chilies I brought home from Istanbul’s Misir Carsisi.
These days the Egyptian Market or Spice Bazaar, is often derided as a tourist trap. And it’s true: The venerable market, located in a 17th century mosque complex just steps from the Bosphorus, is rife with merchants pushing Turkish Viagra (“5 times in the night”), fake saffron (dried safflower petals) and bulbous, candy-hued hookahs.
But if you know where to go….
… you can also find delicious food being snapped up by hungry Istanbullus. There were translucent golden slices of honeycomb and alluring cheeses such as erzincan deri tulum, or “sheep cheese in goatskin.” At one stall there was sweet chewy lokum, or Turkish Delight, flavored with rosewater (but we bought ours elsewhere), at another spicy beef jerky. Outside, vendors were hawking leeches in jars.
But Selin Rozanes, our Istanbul cooking instructor, whisked us past these temptations. “Come! Come!” she urged us, as Serendipity and I elbowed our way through the crowd of late afternoon shoppers. After being stuck in a shared taxi in the city's slow moving traffic, we were late for a visit to Ucuzcular Baharat, a favorite spice shop.
At the back of Ucuzcular, behind the dangling stuffed alligator, next to glittering bottles of potions labeled Pleasure and Elysium, we found Bilge Kadioglu, a pretty brunette and fifth generation spice merchant who studied at Rensselaer Institute and now, with her brother, runs the family business. The shop sells 300 organically grown spices and spice blends, Bilge said, as she began opening wooden drawers and plastic topped bins so we could smell and taste a few.
Among them were five types of vibrant Turkish red pepper, each distinctively different in color, flavor and aroma. They included (pictured above, from left to right):
• Silk-cut maras pepper or ipec pul biber marash. One of the most delicious of Turkish chilies, the plump, oblong maras pepper gets its name from the southeastern city of Kahramanmaras which it is grown near the border with Syria. When dried, maras biber ranges in color from dark red-orange to a hue that’s almost crimson, and it has an earthy, slightly smoky aroma. To taste, it is rich, fruity and mildly acidic; the heat kicks in quickly, but never sets your mouth ablaze.
The term “silk cut” refers to the relatively small size of the pepper flakes, a preference of most chefs, said Bilge. Like most Turkish red pepper, Uzucular’s maras biber is mixed with salt and enough olive oil to give it a moist texture.
• Urfa biber, or isot pepper, is also grown in southeastern Turkey, near the city of Sanliurfa after which it is named. Skinnier and darker red than the maras, urfa chilies turn purplish black after they have been alternately sun-dried and sweated at night, a two-stage process, says Wikipedia, “that works to infuse the dried flesh with the remaining moisture of the pepper.“
Urfa pepper is often described as having a “raisiny” flavor; it is not as sweet and fruity as maras biber, but nearly as tangy, and can have distinct overtones of woodsmoke and leather. Typically the heat is relatively mellow. Around the city of Urfa, this pepper is even used in ice cream, says Wikipedia.
Maras and urfa biber are the most well-known of the Turkish red peppers, but Ucuzcular had three more which I brought home:
• Yagli pul biber, a coarse-cut, bright orange-red chili with very little heat and just a hint of the tanginess of urfa and maras biber;
• Aci pul biber, a dark red, fairly spicy pepper with a pronounced bitter aftertaste;
• Iri dis, “big tooth” pepper, brown-red, rough-cut and the hottest of the five.
Like most chilies, these peppers originated in the New World thousands of years ago, arriving in Turkey by way of Spain after Columbus discovered aji on the island of Hispanola. In The Taste of Conquest, Michael Krondl speculates that Spanish Jews took chilies to the Eastern Mediterranean when they fled the Inquisition. “…[M]any of these had been active in the transatlantic trade,” he writes. “What is more, the Turkish name for chili, biber aci, clearly comes from the Caribbean aji.”
Maras pepper, made of sun-dried chilies grown near the Syrian border, has a rich, fruity flavor with some acidity and moderate heat.
The variations in flavor have as much to do with harvesting, drying and grinding as with the differences in variety, and the soil and microclimate in which the chilies are cultivated. Ihsan Gurdal, the Istanbul-born- and-raised owner of Formaggio Kitchen, an acclaimed gourmet shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, writes of a visit to pepper producers in southeastern Turkey during the filming of Gourmet’s Diary of a Foodie:
Urfa pepper, also grown near the Syrian border, is alternately sun-dried and sweated, producing a dark pepper with mellow heat and distinctive flavors of woodsmoke and leather.
“When fully dried, the peppers offer the peak of concentrated flavor but this is only fully realized when the pepper is ground to the desired texture which melds the skins and seeds into the fruity heat we have come to love. The color, texture and flavor of the final dried and crushed pepper depends on the ripeness of the pepper when picked, the length of drying time, the amount of grinding and the quantity of oil and salt added to the finished product.” (You can read the full article, “Maras and Urfa – a tale of two peppers,” on Formaggio's website.)
In On Food and Cooking, Harold McGee notes fresh chilies have “an outer wall rich in carotenoid pigments”—hence their bright color—as well as those “pungent chemicals, capsaicins,” which actually diminish as the fruit ripens, increasing the mellow flavor of the peppers. “The drying process concentrates the contents of the cells in the fruit wall, encouraging them to react with each other and generate dried-fruit, earthy, woody, nutty and other aromatics,” writes McGee.
I could go on about the spices at Ucuzcular Baharat—about their zahter, for instance, a complex blend quite unlike the usual Middle Eastern blend for za’atar, in that it is made of ground roasted chickpeas, dried peas, hackberries, melon and watermelon seeds, wheat, fennel, cumin, sumac, sesame, pepper and salt. And about the precious 40 ml bottles of pure rose oil, kept in the refrigerator, that could be mine for $157.50 each.
But let’s get back to the question of red pepper. Assuming that you’re a heat-loving cook, what red peppers—dried, flaked or ground to a fine powder—should you keep in your pantry?
Though cayenne has its place, I would actually begin with maras and urfa peppers, not only because of their complex, distinctively different flavors, but because they offer so much more than tongue-scorching heat. With the vivid flavor of ripe, sun-warmed red peppers, and the other earthy, smoky, leathery tastes that develop during the drying and curing process, they bring a lively arsenal of flavor to a dish.
In Episode 51 of Diary of a Foodie, John Willoughby, the cookbook author and former executive editor of Gourmet, observes that maras and urfa biber are as common as salt and pepper at the Turkish table.
We especially noticed this at Seyhmuz, a modest café near Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar where the two peppers were among the condiments served with lamahcun, a to-die-for grilled flatbread “pizza” topped with spicy ground lamb that had been mixed with more red pepper, tomato and parsley. Other condiments included yoghurt, fiery pickles, slivered onion with sour sumac, and fresh tomato sauce with olive oil.
Here at home, I often use flaky Turkish chilies as a finishing pepper for soups, such as the Fire-Roasted Sweet Pepper and Heirloom Tomato Soup I posted this week. Their vibrant flavor also brightens braised meats and adds spark to grain dishes such as Thanksgiving Bulgur Dressing with Cinnamon, Dried Apricots and Walnuts.
Turkish peppers might also be used to add fruity heat to spice blends that you make yourself. Ucuzcular has a particularly delicious Ottoman spice mix that combines silk-cut maras biber with oregano, sumac, cumin, ginger, coriander, long pepper and other spices. The store recommends it for braised meats and for an interesting couscous salad that includes corn, chopped pickles, fresh red peppers, dill, parsley, onion, lemon juice and olive oil.
Or you could just put Turkish chilies in little dishes on the table and see what happens at mealtime.
Aleppo chilies are traditionally grown in Syria just over the Turkish border. Their flavor is rich and slightly tangy with relatively mild heat.
You might add one other ground red pepper from the region: Aleppo or Halaby pepper, which has traditionally been grown in Syria right over the Turkish border. It’s said that the chili itself is similar to urfa biber and that some Aleppo pepper is actually grown in Turkey. (Peppers do a have way of jumping fences when they’re planted near each other.) The drying process appears to be quite different, however, producing a bright orange-red pepper with a rich, robust, slightly tangy flavor and mild heat.
In Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking, Paula Wolfert calls for Aleppo pepper in a number of dishes, among them the tapas-like Sauteed Shrimp with Garlic and Hot Pepper, and Turkish Lamb Tartare, heavily spiced raw lamb wrapped in lettuce leaves and served with glasses of iced raki, the “anise-flavored brandy of Turkey.”
As they say in Istanbul, afiyet olsun!