A fashionable ingredient

"Really, add this spice to anything that calls for a layer of slow-building heat" Aliza Abarbanel - Bon Appétit

I'm easing myself into another Christmas present cookbook - from my husband and chosen by myself. Well that's what happens when you have been married for a long time. It's Yotam Ottolenghi's latest - Flavour. Yes an obvious choice, and I did try to resist but you sort of have to buy it don't you? Although oddly I don't feel quite the same about Jamie's books even though I probably make more of his food and certainly prefer his recipes for everyday life. Maybe deep down I'm a food snob and have to have the 'fashionable' cookbooks on my shelf. Jamie isn't fashionable and is also very prolific when it comes to cookbooks. So there's an element of 'do I need another one'? I do have a few after all.


Anyway, in Flavours, in typical Ottolenghi style he tends to favour a particular ingredient and when it comes to this book I would have to say the ingredient that is in almost everything is chilli in general, and Aleppo chilli in particular. Above is what Aleppo chilli flakes - for that is how you buy them and use them - look like. Chilli is not a popular thing in this household so I was intrigued to see that many writers refer to this particular chilli as mild - e.g the Maloufs


"milder than chilli peppers, but hotter than paprika - which add an exciting piquancy to many dishes." Lucy Malouf - Saha


Also Bon Appétit, which is from where the above picture came:


"This spice about half as hot as the crushed red chile flakes you put on your late-night dollar-slice pizza, and easily twice as flavorful. Like salt, Aleppo-style pepper is a flavor enhancer. It marries slow-building heat with earthy, cumin-y undertones and a little hit of fruity tang—and yes, it’s as delicious as it sounds." Aliza Abarbanel - Bon Appétit


Others added sun-dried tomatoes to the flavour description, but to a man or woman they concurred that they are amazing. Nigella too in her latest books sprinkles them here and there with comparative abandon. I suspect that others do too, but it's difficult to check through indexes for it, because it's a sort of extra ingredient and therefore not generally worthy of an index entry.


So what actually is it?

It's a chilli pepper called the Halaby pepper and although I assume it originally came from the Americas, it has been grown over the centuries mostly around the Syrian town of Aleppo. No more of course. Or hardly anymore. The city has been basically devastated, and all its surrounding farms. Prior to that the farms were being abandoned anyway because of years of drought - Turkish fans too. Nowadays unless you have personal contacts in Syria with somebody who grows their own, it mostly comes from Turkey where it is called pul biber. But before leaving Syria I should say that it also seems to be an Armenian in Syria thing. When it was produced in Syria it was grown by hundreds of small producers, who then sold it to the middle men who made the money. It was a labour intensive and lengthy process to get from the chillies on the left to the flakes at the top of the page. I found a description of the process in the New York Times:


“It is not washed, but cleaned with pieces of white cloth then cut lengthwise on one side only and the seeds are removed. Then the pepper is placed on the rooftop to dry in the sun. ...

When partly dried, the naturally oily peppers are coarsely ground and mixed with a bit of salt and olive oil, then left to dry completely" Marlene Matar


But back to the emigration to Turkey. Strictly speaking not quite an emigration, as it was already being grown there and processed to flakes known as pul biber in Turkey. Which to a connoisser's eye is doubtless not quite the same. But some Syrian refugees brought precious seeds with them and these have been planted. Still not the same I'm guessing - terroir and all that. The same goes for the Aleppo chilli flakes now produced in America, and maybe Australia too. Well there is at least one farmer in Toowoomba who grows them so there are probably more. And even though you can't get them in your supermarket you can certainly buy them online from Herbie's spices or The essential ingredient. If you are a keen gardener you may even be able to find the seeds somewhere. But if you can't be bothered but want to approximate the taste - and I'm sure it's an approximation - then one site said you could instead:


"Mix four parts sweet, smoked paprika with one part cayenne pepper."


Which sounds like a level of hotness that David might be able to tolerate. And they all do say it's mild, but then you see that it is ranked at 10,000 on the chilli scale and Jalapeños are ranked at 5,000. Aren't they hot? Or am I confusing them with Habaneros? So now I'm wondering. My daughter-in-law tells me there is a Middle-eastern food store not very far from here, so maybe I will go and have a browse some day. They might have lots of things that I could be tempted by.


It is interesting though, isn't it that such an ingredient should suddenly be the ingredient of the moment? How does that happen? I guess chefs such as Ottolenghi are always looking for new flavours, so that they can devise more recipes and sell more books. Last time with Ottolenghi in Simple it was the Urfa pepper flakes - which are Turkish.

These are they. Obviously quite different at least in colour. According to my The Grammar of Spice book:


"In among the flavour mix, urfa chilli flakes bring smoke and spice, but also shades of chocolate, wine and raisin."


Somebody else added tobacco to the mix. They are apparently closely related to the Aleppo chillies, and are grown just over the mountains. Ottolenghi does not mention these much in his new book, having, it seems fallen in love with the Aleppo flakes instead.


But I guess that's what chefs do is it not? They find a new ingredient and use it every which way they can until they ultimately decide that it is an all-time favourite and therefore just part of life, or whether it is replaced by a new darling. Urfa flakes which were one of Ottolenghi's top ten ingredients in Simple are not even mentioned in his Ottolenghi ingredients list in Flavour.


ADDENDUM

Today, courtesy of Bunnings, we constructed a mini 'fence' around my mini veggie garden. It was a fast and curiously satisfying experience. The plastic 'fence' was beautifully, though entirely accidentally, colour co-ordinated to match the bed's frame and it required hardly any work at all to put it up. And look at those lettuces in the foreground! They were only planted a couple of weeks ago. I shall have to start picking the outside leaves or they will go to seed. The rainbow chard is struggling though - that's the big gap in the middle, but the Chinese choys are doing Ok at the other end. We also bought some netting for the top but I don't think the birds are interested in leaves, and I'm pretty sure it will keep out the possums and rabbits. Not sure about the kangaroos though. We shall see. There wasn't even that much shouting during the construction either. Well a little bit, until we found we actually agreed rather than disagreed and had simply misunderstood each other.

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