All About Aleppo Pepper – it’s not pepper

In this post:

“Cities die just like people” 

Khaled Khalifa, No Knives in the Kitchens of this City

I was exploring Borough market with a friend and she took me to Spice Mountain and generously bought me some Aleppo pepper.

We’re not massive fans of super-hot chilli at Saucy Dressings (it overpowers other flavours and ruins decent wine), and I was very encouraged when she told me that Aleppo pepper was a lot more subtle and gentle than standard crushed chillies.

What was it exactly, I wondered?

What is Aleppo pepper, aka pul biber?

Aleppo pepper, or Aleppo chilli, is also known as Halaby (or Halab) pepper, and in Turkey the crushed, dried flakes are known as pul biber or in English language Turkish recipe books as ‘Turkish pepper flakes’. It’s grown and prepared in Syria (in the city of Aleppo), but also in neighbouring Turkey, where the chillies are sun-dried, deseeded, usually salted and then crushed and oiled. To be accurate, it used to come from Aleppo, but it hasn’t for a long time. Nowadays it’s produced in a number of different places. 

So Aleppo pepper isn’t pepper (go to Full Briefing on Pepper to find out more on pepper). It’s made from dried chillies – lovely, slightly fat and round, mild chillies.

Where is Aleppo?

Aleppo is a city, one of the world’s oldest (sixth millennium BC) inhabited cities – probably founded in the sixth millennium BC in fact.  More recently however – about half an hour ago as I write -it had its hospital bombed for the second time. With its beautiful, honey-coloured citadel it was once a popular stopping point on the silk road to China; now, tragically, a key battleground in Syria’s civil war, it has suffered massive devastation, being on the wrong end – as the Economist describes it – of ‘a typhoon of shrapnel’. This is a city described by author, Anissa Helou, as ‘the gastronomic capital of the Middle East’. Aleppo is in the north of Syria, near Turkey’s southern border. For more about this lovely city and the tragedy of its destruction read Peter Frankopan’s excellent article, A City of Ashes.

The lovely citadel of Aleppo before destruction by war
The lovely citadel of Aleppo before destruction by war

What does Aleppo pepper taste like and how hot is it?

It’s mild (partly because the seeds have been removed, partly because the chilli itself is milder than many)…. and also a little fruity, tangy, bright. It is often a little salty (salt is often used in the drying process).

At 10,000 points it’s at the bottom (milder) end of the Scoville scale:

  • an ordinary bell pepper is 0
  • paprika is 100-1,000 points
  • Peppadew and Espelette is 1,000 to 3,500
  • then Aleppo comes in at 10,000
  • Cayenne, Tabasco and Urfa pepper flakes come in at 30,000 to 50,000
  • at 100,000 – 350,000 there is Scotch Bonnet
  • …. and 850,000 – 2,200,000 you have the California Reaper at the top of the scale

What to use as a substitute for Aleppo pepper

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

Alternatively try (all from Turkey):

  • Maraş (pronounced Marash) pepper (hotter, smokier)
  • Antebi (or Antep) pepper (milder, more as if made from an ordinary capiscum)
  • Urfa pepper (dried partly open and partly closed – darker, smokier, slightly more raisiny than the Aleppo pepper, more costly than Maraş and Antebi, and some say, Saucy Dressings included, the best of the lot)

How to use Aleppo pepper

It gives a bright red touch of colour, but it does have kick, so sprinkle with circumspection over:

  • Soups (especially red lentil soup)
  • Bland, soft, cheeses – it’s often added to labneh
  • Pizza
  • Salad
  • Pasta
  • In a vinaigrette
  • sprinkle over fried eggs for a Turkish breakfast
  • or in Turkish meatballs – köfte
  • Mix into a potato salad
  • Rub into meat before grilling
  • Mix with yoghurt and marinated chicken cubes and make kebabs
  • Mix with diced preserved lemons and olive oil, and cover a chicken with the mix before roasting
  • Sprinkle over oiled flatbreads and heat gently
  • Sprinkle over a slice of pineapple together with some bitter honey and black lava salt, and grill
  • Over middle-eastern dips, such as humus or tzatziki
  • Add to the stock you use to cook rice, or sprinkle over rice
  • As suggested in The Guardiangrilled prawns and feta, saganaki-style
  • It can also be used to make an excellent tapenade (recipe to come)
  • Mina Holland, in The Edible Atlas, admits that “personally, I love a few flakes sprinkled over avocado on toast.”

“Syria is also set apart from Lebanon by its broader use of herbs and spices–such as tarragon (sometimes added to labneh) and Aleppo pepper, a fruity dried capsicum of medium heat, which gives distinctive flair to Aleppian dishes including muhammara. This is a meze dip made with blitzed roasted red peppers, walnuts, pomegranate molasses, garlic, olive oil and lemon juice.”

Mina Holland, The Edible Atlas
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