Updated: Aug 7, 2021
In the ancient world what we now know as Turkey was part of the First Persian Empire.This empire at its height spanned all of what is now northern and central Greece, the Balkans and eastern Europe, Syria and the countries of the Arabian Peninsula to as far east as modern-day India.This empire remained very strong for centuries but before it fell apart it also included Lebanon and later Jordan (Bahadori, 2017). Why the history lesson?It explains why there are similarities in these cultures, particularly in the realm of the kitchen.The spice palette of these nations includes red pepper flakes, black pepper, thyme, mint, cumin, sumac, bay leaf, cinnamon, rosemary and clove (Koç & Karayiğit, 2021).
While there are similarities, there are some unique differences too! In Turkey, we find Urfa Biber. This is a Turkish chile pepper that takes its name from the southern Turkish town of Urfa where it originated. The technique used to dry this pepper (sun dried during the day and covered at night) gives it a smoky tangy flavor and an oily damp texture. Bear in mind that this pepper tastes smoky, but it is not smoked! The sun drying chars the pepper causing its smoky well-rounded flavor and its dark burgundy color, (Dağhan, et al., 2018). Some pepper aficionados will tell you the flavor has notes of coffee, chocolate, tobacco, and raisins. Hungry Gene himself says it tastes like a smokey raisin, not too sweet with a moderate and pleasant level of heat that builds in intensity as you continue eating it. It boasts 6,000-8,000 Scoville Heat Units (SHU) which puts at the hotter end of the jalapeno range of heat (Sheldon, 2017).
How does one use this unique Turkish chili pepper? Traditionally these peppers are used in lamb dishes including everything from traditional kebabs to lamb chops (used as a rub in the latter). This pepper also makes for a tasty rub on wild game like venison or in a duck confit. But its use is not limited to meats! Urfa can be used when roasting root vegetables, in tagine dishes, or sprinkled over feta or haloumi cheese or even salad! You might even want to try it in your favorite brownie recipe to add a smoky raisin kick to this chocolate delight (Sheldon, 2017).
As we travel south of Turkey, we encounter the ancient nation of Syria, home to the Aleppo pepper. Even though the pepper has its origins in central and South America, it found its way to Europe in the late 15th century when Columbus returned to Spain and brought with him riches from the New World. Eventually, these peppers found their way to Portugal, Morrocco and into northern Africa. Trade eventually brought the pepper into Turkey and Syria where the peppers took on the unique characteristics of the Syrian terrain and proliferated. Named after the city which became this terroir pepper’s new home, it is a bright red naturally oily pepper which is traditionally dried on the rooftops of Aleppo. Once it is partially dry, it is pounded into large flakes and cured in a light coating of oil and salt before fully drying. On the heat spectrum, these peppers are anywhere from 2,500-5,000 SHU. This is slightly less intense than its
Turkish sister Urfa Biber, but like its sister the intensity grows as you continue to eat it. In addition to its heat, this pepper has hints of citrus and is fruity with a little sweetness. This pepper boasts a balance of salt, acid, and sweetness which makes it very versatile. It can be mixed into shaksuka (a middle eastern poached egg dish, pictured), sprinkled over baba ganoush or hummus, stirred into tomato sauce, used to roast vegetables, or even mixed into yogurt with garlic and lemon for a dip or marinade for chicken or lamb. And just like Urfa, Aleppo can be used to elevate the flavor of brownies and other sweet treats (Askimakopoulou, 2017).
Unfortunately, as a result of civil war in Syria millions of crops have been destroyed over the years devastating the economy of the city of Aleppo and its peppers. In an effort to preserve the plant, seeds have been carried across the border of Syria into Turkey and across the ocean to the United States. As a result of those efforts, the Aleppo pepper is once again proliferating and with that brings the promise of peaceful existence for the nation of Syria and a return of both its people and their peppers to their native home (Barlow, 2016).
Traveling further south along the Mediterranean coast, we come to the crossroads of the Mediterranean Basin and the Arabian Peninsula, the beautiful country of Lebanon. While geographically it is the smallest of the Asian nations, it is one of the oldest civilizations predating recorded history. Lebanon has a rich cultural history which in my experience means magnificent culinary talents and sumptuous cuisine. Lebanese national dishes include kibbe, tabbouleh, and M’Juhdara (a traditional stew of onions, rice, and lentils, pictured), (Macatulad, & Macatulad, 2021).
There are, of course, many other wonderful dishes made in the Lebanese kitchen. Friends of ours who own a Lebanese food business, N & N Cuisine, specialize in delicious, home-style Lebanese recipes, including spinach pies, meat pies, stuffed grape leaves, kibbe, cookies, and baklava. Hungry Gene absolutely loves their meat pies! What we didn’t know is that there is a Lebanese sweet pepper that is used in many Lebanese dishes. This pepper, akin to Allspice, is known as Bhar Helou and very difficult to find here in the United States. Bhar Helou is not to be confused with Baharat which is a Mediterranean spice blend (like a middle eastern curry) that has a variety of spices blended together (Koç & Karayiğit, 2021). As a favor to our friends at N & N Cuisine, Hungry Gene searched the world over and found this wonderful pepper in, you guessed it, Beirut (well of course!). There is very little information published on this pepper. Most of the information we found refers to the Baharat blend or other pepper blends called Bhar Helou with Allspice as its primary ingredient. According to our Lebanese chef friends at N & N, the pepper itself is the real deal – not the blends. Be wary of the labels on the spice packages – better yet, get your pure Bhar Helou directly from Hungry Gene.
Bhar Helou is dried similarly to Malabar or Telicherry pepper and the deep brown peppercorns are then ground into a powder. The flavor is similar to Allspice but perhaps a little sweeter. This enchanting sweet pepper is what gives Lebanese cuisine its warm and welcoming flavor. In addition to the unique traditional dishes we have already mentioned, Bhar Helou can be used on virtually everything! It is used to season rice, couscous, roasted vegetable dishes, beef, poultry, lamb, fish, eggs, soups and salads. It can be served with yogurt, tahini, or mixed in olive oil for dipping your bread. Sprinkle it everywhere and enjoy!
Common to many Middle Eastern kitchens is a seasoning blend known as Za’atar. It is as ancient as the nations that use it and as unique as the chef who uses it. For centuries, recipes for Za’atar were closely guarded family secrets – sometimes not even passed down from one generation to the next! This is one of the main reasons that it is challenging to determine the spice blends used in the different nations of the Middle East. For example, Za’atar made in Israel may contain dill, Jordanian Za’atar may have larger amounts of sumac and Lebanese Za’atar may contain orange zest. There are however common ingredients in all of the varieties of Za’atar. Hungry Gene’s Za’atar is a blend of sumac, thyme, sesame seeds, paprika, cumin, oregano, and salt (Alwafa, Mudalal, & Mauriello, 2021).
Now that we have identified Za’atar, how do we use it? Most frequently, Za’atar is used as a condiment directly on food or stirred into olive oil as a dip for bread. It can also be sprinkled on hummus or eaten with Labneh (a Middle Eastern cheese with the consistency of a thick yogurt). It can be used as a dry rub to roast vegetables or on a variety of meats, poultry and fish. In some of the Mediterranean basin countries, Za’atar is used at breakfast on eggs, oatmeal or yogurt. Some have said Za’atar can be used everywhere you would use salt and pepper. Try some on popcorn! You can even use it in lemon cookies for a twist on the traditional treat (Jampel, 2019; Bishara & Bishara, 2018).
We will continue our travels to the nations of the Mediterranean Basin in our next blog submission.
Until then, remember when the Hungry Gene strikes… feed it spice!
~ Mamma Spice