A pepper pilgrimage

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smistanbulspicepazar0001.JPGAs ubiquitous as the aubergine is the pepper (biber), in all its versions:  red hot chilli peppers, fat bell peppers and numerous thinner green varieties.  The fresh green pepper - longer, thinner and paler than a regular bell, and sometimes with some pleasing heat - must be used in 8 out of 10 savoury Turkish dishes.  It adds a wonderful fresh pepperiness (for want of a better word) to meat stews, vegetable meze, egg dishes and more.  Its fatter bell cousin is usually stuffed with rice and flavourings. But it was the chilli pepper that really caught our interest ...
Smmaraspeppers0001.jpgI first came across ‘marash pepper’ in the kitchen of Chez Panisse in California, where I interned for a few months.  It was their chilli pepper of choice - the deep red dried flakes were used both to add a gentle heat to cooked dishes (we were never allowed to make dishes properly hot for fear of upsetting the customers) and as an attractive and taste-enhancing garnish.  It seemed to be something special - in the same way that piment d’Espellette, a chilli with its own AOC, is special in France.  I asked one cook what a ‘marash pepper’ was and where it came from.  She didn’t know.  And so my curiosity was born…

So, imagine our excitement (well, Matt was less excited; Barnaby more so) on finding ‘Maraş biberi’ in the great Egyptian spice bazaar in İstanbul, for the first time since leaving the Bay Area, and then again in almost every pazar we visited.  Forget those miniature jars and packets of tasteless, desiccated, yellowish flakes on sale in the supermarket (and probably lurking at the back of your kitchen cupboard), and imagine instead row after row of large, bulging cloth sacks piled high with pyramids of bright red, slightly moist chilli flakes or varying shades.  Every spice seller and cook we met was duly quizzed on the subject...

Smmarassign0001.jpg The learning curve was steep:  it’s a particular variety of chilli pepper, or maybe a family of varieties, named after the town of Maraş in southeastern Turkey (now called Kahramanmaraş after a heroic incident during the battle against the French Armenian Legion involving a milkman), around which it’s grown in great quantities. 

Buying it is not as straightforward as you may think - do you want it in big flakes or little, slightly hotter or slightly milder, preserved with lots of oil and salt or just a little, with the ribs and seeds left in (for some extra heat) or removed, from a fleshier variety or skinnier, medium or darker roasted….?  The prices vary accordingly. But which was the one, the genuine Maraş pepper, the best?  Answers varied, and it seemed that the main criterion was that it came from Maraş, which most of them did.

Smeggmeze0001.JPGIt’s known throughout Turkey for being only medium hot and having a particular aroma and flavour (I would say fruity and acidic).  Hence it is used only as a garnish, and is often mixed with warmed oil before being drizzled over a finished dish such as boiled eggs with yoghurt, mantı (a kind of ravioli) or soup.  Much hotter chilli, such as that from Şanlıurfa, another southeastern town, is used to give meatballs and other cooked dishes some real heat.  It’s therefore not considered superior to other peppers (and there are lots of them…), just different.  

We learnt that the reason it’s known outside Turkey is that the Maraş pepper people were the first to successfully market their product abroad.  And it may even have reached Chez Panisse via the talented chef Musa Dağdeviren who we met in İstanbul at his restaurant Ciya, who told us he took Alice Waters a big bag of it as a gift when he visited her some years ago!  It’s a small world.

Smspiceboy0001.jpgMuch of Turkey’s chilli crop ends up as paste, also sold in vast quantities from large tubs at market spice stalls.  Our favourite spice stall in İstanbul, energetically run by multi-lingual Çetin Inanç (‘Spice Boy’ to his mates), sells 25 tonnes of chilli paste a year.  To make your own you mix fresh chillis with oil and salt, lay them out in the hot sun to roast for quite a while to the desired colour, which ranges from bright red to almost black, then pound, and pound and pound, with an enormous mortar and pestle to a moist, rough paste.  Easier to buy some from Spice Boy I say.  A spoonful of tomato and/or chilli paste goes into the base for numerous soups, stews and other dishes and never fails to make them extra delicious, so it seems.

Read about the other flavours of Turkey we enjoyed...

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