Aleppo Pepper: History in a Modern Kitchen
Aleppo Pepper: History in a Modern Kitchen

In the early 2000s, Aleppo pepper was becoming a darling of the American food scene, cropping up in nouveau dishes from coast to coast. Syria, with 400 years of Ottoman rule and many subsequent decades of hot-and-cold relations, has not always been open to the West and some of its produce, like the Aleppo pepper, remained an ingredient that remained relatively local trade. Then Syria entered into tentative global trade with previously underutilized trading partners and that was when American chefs were able to experience the beauty of the Aleppo pepper. Aleppan chefs at that time were in full renaissance, fusing traditional Syrian foods with French techniques, or incorporating Chinese ingredients into Aleppan dishes. Other countries, finally able to experience Syrian ingredients, dug into the relaxed trade in response. Aleppo peppers, full of fruit and fire, were making their way onto menus, with Brussels sprouts in Boston to sausage flatbreads in L.A., and in everything that would hold a spicy pepper, from pasta to chocolate. But in 2011, civil war broke out in Syria and these peppers, with their slowly but determinedly growing legion of fans, was suddenly harder and harder to find.

A much-beloved heritage crop from the ancient city in northern Syria for which they are named, carnelian-red Aleppo pepper flakes—or Halaby peppers, or Aleppo biber—glow with the internalized heat of the Mediterranean sun and bring a special quality to the recipes in which they are used. A naturally oily pepper, it’s wiped clean with a white cloth, cut in half, and traditionally dried on the rooftops of Aleppo. Then it’s pounded to large flakes instead of powder and given a final curing in a light coating of oil and salt before being left to fully dry. They create a vibrant visual for presentation as the striking red flakes glimmer on the plate. At approximately 2,500-5,000 Scoville Heat Units (SHU), their heat is present but not overwhelming, and makes plenty of room for the pepper’s terroir flavors of earth and water along the Levantine coast to shine. Aleppo peppers, for all their celebrated flavor, are more than just a spice or a crop. Aleppo peppers bear silent witness to history. They testify to the history of a city, local and global conquest, and the impacts of human endeavors like trade, politics, and war.


What does Aleppo Pepper Taste like?


Speaking of the complex flavor of the Aleppo pepper, Eric Ripert, the chef/owner of Le Bernardin in New York City, says, “It is, of course, spicy, but it’s also a little citrusy and fruity, with a bit of sweetness…”. That sweetness has been compared to the deep, fruity-musty flavor of raisins, or the lush savor of sun-dried tomatoes. The chiles of the eastern Mediterranean region exhibit a flavor profile that’s markedly different than that offered by Mexican or Asian chiles. They all share a salt-and-acid forward flavor, but where Aleppo pepper is fruity and spicy, Crushed Maras Chiles are deeply earthy and Urfa Biber is muscular and almost licorice-like.


What is Aleppo Pepper Good For?


Because of its gorgeous balance of salt, acid, and sweetness, the Aleppo Pepper is incredibly versatile, and can be found in both savory and sweet dishes. It’s famously part of the Turkish poached egg dish cilbir, and can also be found sprinkled over shakshuka or as a garnish for baba ghanoush. It’s a standout in tomato sauces, particularly those with a twist of coriander and mint. The salty sourness is a great means by which to highlight the sweetness in winter squashes, so add to the seasoning in a squash before roasting. Mix with yogurt, garlic and lemon to create a rich marinade for chicken thighs, and then grill. Bakers like Aleppo Pepper’s balanced flavors and heat and will use it in brownies or cinnamon stars.


The Origins of Aleppo Pepper


The story of the Aleppo Pepper begins, as most pepper stories do, deep in the heart of central and South America, circa the late 15th century. Christopher Columbus made his way to the Americas and returned to Spain with offerings that told a story of a land rich with resources, thus opening the passage westward to European exploration. Among Columbus’s spoils were spicy capsicums, but their fiery heat was not particularly favored in Spain, and they were passed along to Spanish monks to see if the peppers had medicinal uses. From Spain, the peppers went to Portugal, and then down through Morocco and into northern Africa. Trade carried the peppers across northern Africa and into Syria and Turkey; the pepper plant’s proclivities for cross-breeding and the terroir properties that peppers display developed, eventually, into the characteristic Aleppo pepper.


Ancient Aleppo City


The city of Aleppo is one of the oldest, continually-occupied cities in the world. Because the population hasn’t shifted away from the original living areas and instead has rebuilt on top of old sites, excavation is difficult to do and it’s hard to pinpoint Aleppo’s exact age. It’s generally agreed upon that the city is at least 6,000 years old and most likely a millennia or two older, and it sits at what was once a major crossroad of both land- and sea-based trade routes. With its phenomenally multilayered history, Aleppo is a mosaic of the world cultures that created impact there. The city has absorbed and still reflects influences from, among others, the Hittites, the Greeks, the Romans, and the Ottoman Empire.


The Impact of the Syrian Civil War


It’s been estimated that between 2011 and 2016, Syrian combatants destroyed $550 million in crops, annually, in the vicinity of Aleppo. This, along with trade embargoes enacted on Syria in response to the civil war and infrastructure bombing, devastated the economy of Aleppo and put traditional crops, like their namesake pepper and local varieties of wheat and pistachios, in jeopardy. But the people of Syria, it seems, are proud and resourceful, and will go to great lengths to preserve their culture, even if it’s just in a pepper seed. The unique qualities of this pepper have created devotees, and pepper seeds were carried across the border and across the ocean. Restaurateurs in the United States have met with some success in growing their own Aleppo peppers from seed, and the peppers grown from Aleppo seed, just across the border in Turkey, are largely indistinguishable from their Syrian brethren, but for the national pride.

Right now, there are precious few rooftops in Aleppo on which to dry the peppers. If they had crops to tend, the severely diminished population, with more than 5 million refugees having fled and more than half a million people killed, would be unlikely to successfully process enough peppers to matter. But the peppers of Aleppo are surviving in the hands of people who have tasted this special spice and recognize its complex appeal. Sweet, spicy, fruity, earthy, oily, and a little bit salty, Aleppo peppers embody the nature of their original environment as much as any terroir product could. Evoking Aleppo City’s ancient roots in terms of resilience and perseverance, this pepper symbolizes beauty and culture, the love of one’s country and the things for which a citizenry can take pride. And in its seeds it carries with it the hope that some day, like the people of that region, the Aleppo pepper can return home.