Why you need Aleppo pepper in your life

Sometimes-actually quite often, I find myself utterly obsessed with a new spice. For a few fleeting weeks, I had a love affair with Baharat, dousing everything from eggs to broccoli florets with the smoky but sweet spice. Many moons ago, I couldn’t get enough of turmeric. Staining my hands-and the apartment kitchen counters a golden yellow in the process. Let’s not even discuss my torrid month in the arms of berbere seasoning.

How it typically works is that I “discover” the spice in one of my monthly spice gatherings. Meaning I go to my favorite international market and grab at the spice aisle like a mad woman. Filling my cart with dozens of small packets, excitedly running through a list of flavor combinations in my head. Familiar with most, but intrigued by the unfamiliar.

Like Aleppo pepper.

Now, I am not entirely sure if I am late to the game on this spice, but I have quickly become its number one fan. It has been in my daily rotation for about three months now, and I haven’t been able to move on from it. A tangy, sweet, but inherently smoky pepper, it adds that bit of “wow” to a wide array of dishes. Calling it spicy would be generous, as it is quite mild. But it is what we would call a gradual heat, because if you continue to build upon it, you may need an extra glass of water or two (or is it milk?).

With the appearance of its larger friend, the red pepper flake (like the kind you find at your local pizzeria), it has that beautiful deep red hue, without the speckle of white. Softer than that of the dried red pepper flakes, there is almost a jammy texture to the salty Aleppo pepper flake. The taste is reminiscent of a plum-like sun dried tomato with mild chili heat as an undertone.

I have been sprinkling the little merlot-colored jewels over (almost) everything. Eggs are my favorite, with a toasted, buttered slice of bread a close second. I found them tucked in an aisle of my favorite Mediterranean market. Their spice aisle is honestly one of my favorite places in the world. An aisle I spend entirely too much time in, according to my boyfriend. A fact that he likes to remind me of as he casually leans against the industrial cans of tomato sauce that lumber across from my nirvana. Rows of spices in their shiny little packages, begging to be taken home.

I was specifically searching for Aleppo pepper, as I had been reading about middle eastern cuisine (the esteemed Paula Wolfert) and was intrigued. One of those “had to have it” spices. It did not disappoint. Clearly.

The story of Aleppo pepper begins in Syria. It was named after one of the oldest inhabited cities, which just so happens to be off of THE silk road. Primarily grown in Syria, the process of this ingredient is incredibly detailed. While quite a popular spice in the culinary world, the actual gathering and processing of this robust pepper is arduous. The pepper is dried, rubbed with cloth, crushed into flakes, and fermented with salt and sometimes olive oil.

Because of the long conflict in Syria, true Syrian Aleppo pepper is extremely difficult to find. There was such a panic in the US culinary world, that chefs began to step up, desperately searching for the seeds. From there, growing them domestically has increased dramatically. Sadly, while delicious, they are not the same as true Syrian Aleppo pepper flakes. All we can do is wait and continue the legacy the best we can of this prized ingredient.

I implore you, if you are looking for something to sprinkle over everything, run as quickly as you can to the store and grab Aleppo pepper flakes. Appease even the shyest of eaters with this mild pepper. Let it rain upon even your greasiest of pizza slices. Reach for it the next time you make an egg. Pair it with cheese to create complete hysteria.

Join me, future Aleppo pepper obsessive. You won’t regret it.

For further reading on the legendary Aleppo pepper, check out this piece in the NY Times about the challenges in Syria and all of the incredible work Chefs and Aleppo pepper lovers have done to attempt to continue its legacy here in the United States.