Middle Eastern chilli peppers have become culinary darlings loved by celebrity chefs and foodies the world over.
The most famous ones are Urfa chilli and Aleppo pepper. Both chillis are cultivated in hot and dry climates and, unlike their Mexican cousins (chipotle, habanero or poblano chillis), they don’t have an overpowering heat. They have a relatively mellow, slow releasing, comforting kick that subtly hits the palate. They are so popular because they have a truly transformative power and can take a dish from ho-hum to wow with a few simple sprinkles.
The Mighty Aleppo Pepper
Aleppo Pepper has a very interesting history and is becoming very hard to find nowadays. Named after the ancient city of Aleppo in northern Syria where it was originally cultivated, it was grown by Christian and Muslim farmers for centuries and traded along the Silk Road by Sephardic Jewish spice merchants. Middle Eastern cooks have used Aleppo Pepper since the dawn of time to season stews, meat dishes and sauces.
Aleppo Pepper’s story goes all the way back to Christopher Columbus who introduced Europeans to chili peppers he brought from the West Indies. The Moors then brought spices from Spain to North Africa. Then the Ottoman Empire helped spread chillis throughout the Middle East. Syria and Turkey were especially ideal for chilli farming. Because chillis naturally cross breed, new varieties quickly sprang up, and that’s how Aleppo Pepper emerged.
For the past 12 years, raising global temperatures caused by climate change have caused draughts, crop failures and reduced harvests. Hundreds of Aleppo Pepper farms were abandoned by farmers across Syria. Since 2011, when the Syrian civil war began, Aleppo Pepper has become even more scarce due to the political situation. Many Syrian refugees have tried to save the Aleppo Pepper from extinction, not only as an important part of their cuisine but also their culture and history. Some have managed to bring the seeds with them and are carefully storing them in the hope of returning to farming when they are able to. Many Syrian spice growers moved their operations north, across the border into Turkey, where Aleppo Pepper is mostly cultivated nowadays (although there have been some reports of it being grown in parts of the US because of the global shortage).
Aleppo Peppers are traditionally fermented in salt once they are harvested and then dried thoroughly before they are coarsely ground to create the lovely red flakes we know and love.
The Miracle of Urfa Chilli
Urfa Chilli (also known as “Isot Pepper” or “Urfa Biber”) is a sultry, dark purple (almost black), smoky-sweet-sour chilli that is cultivated in the South-Eastern Urfa region of Turkey (just north of the Syrian border and the Syrian town of Aleppo). It has a stunning raisin like aroma with deep smoky, fruity and earthy notes that will remind you of chocolate and coffee or even roasted caramel or maple.
Like Aleppo Pepper, it’s a delicate flavoured chilli and slightly more robust than Aleppo Pepper. It doesn’t overwhelm the palate and adds a beautiful depth of flavour with lots of versatility. Urfa Chilli flakes are a bit oily and smooth due to their high moisture content.
Urfa Chilli is a bright red-orange chilli variety with a fruity, citrusy flavour and wood-scented notes that ripens to a darker maroon colour. It is then harvested and undergoes a two-step sweating process: farmers sun-dry it during the day and cover it with tarps at night to prevent it from drying entirely. This process is repeated by the farmers for about a week until the chilli ferments, oxidizes and turns into a dark crimson colour. That’s how the Urfa develops its oily texture and unique complex smoky flavour.
Urfa Chilli has a mild to medium heat rating of 30.00 to 50.00 units on the Scoville scale, similar to jalapeños or cayenne pepper, so use sparingly and adjust to taste.
Aleppo or Urfa?
Which one to go for? We say both! These two miracle ingredients are each beautiful in their own special way. They’re also so much tastier than your generic chilli flakes (that tend to be a lacklustre mix of different chillis from different parts of the world with no real distinctive character and a one dimensional overpowering heat).
Because Aleppo pepper and Urfa chilli have different flavour profiles and aromas, they deserve to be explored and enjoyed in their own right.
Aleppo Pepper has a warm, fruity, spicy citrusy flavour that will remind you of good quality sun dried tomatoes with a bit of a kick. In Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisines it’s so common that it’s sometimes used instead of salt. It’s widely used to spice lamb kebabs, grilled chicken, minced beef and other types of grilled meats.
We love using it as a finishing chilli sprinkled on pasta, pizzas and rice dishes, popcorn, spiced nuts, roasted vegetables, scrambled eggs, or avocado toast. We also love cooking with it and adding it to grilled chicken marinades, soups or stews. We’ve also tried sprinkling Aleppo Pepper on grilled fish and seafood (try marinating grilled prawns in some Aleppo Pepper, olive oil and crushed garlic or simply scatter it over pan fried salmon or barramundi fillets).
You can also use a bit of Aleppo Pepper to spice up mayo to make a spicy aioli or sprinkle it over fried halloumi to add some oomph to otherwise humble dishes.
Aleppo Pepper has a lovely bright acidity that enlivens pretty much anything that needs a bit of a kick without lending too much heat. So it’s a great addition to spiced desserts - like chocolate mousse, brownies or even hot chocolate. Try it once and you’ll be addicted in no time!
Urfa Chilli adds gorgeous flavours to both light dishes like salads and vegetables as well as hearty fare like braised or grilled lamb, beef meatballs, burgers and grilled chicken. It’ll take simple roasted root vegetables or pumpkin soup to another level. It’s great sprinkled on roasted eggplant or red capsicum, roast baby potatoes or even baked brie (or any other pungent cheese). Try adding to creamy dishes like pasta carbonara, potato gratin, fritters or cauliflower bakes. You can also mix it into yoghurt to make a delectable dip for roasted veg or grilled meats or fish. Or toss with feta chunks before mixing those into a tomato salad with lots of olive oil. You get the idea.
Whatever your preference, one thing’s for sure - once you’ve discovered these magical transformative chillis you won’t look back.