On a recent trip to Istanbul, a glorious town for food-lovers, I discovered an old familiar friend on just about every meze table. That was muhammara, a sauce or dip made from red peppers, both sweet and hot, mixed with crushed walnuts, pomegranate syrup, and other tasty elements from the Eastern Mediterranean pantry. And it did not surprise me for a minute that every place in which we sampled muhammara, it was slightly different from all the others—in one it was hotter and spicier, lighting up the palate, in another smoother and more comforting, balm for the culinary soul.
How do you pronounce it? Not the way they say on You Tube, that’s for sure. You sort of slide the m and the h together and put the stress on the hamm syllable, so it comes out like this: mmHAMMara. It may actually be easier to make than it is to pronounce. You can make it with a food processor if you wish, but try it with a mortar and pestle if you can—just as with basil pesto, the texture will be much better, much closer to the ideal.
I first encountered this magnificent sauce years ago when I was living in Beirut. There, cooks told me, it comes from Aleppo. But it is really all over the culinary map in that part of the world, from Gaziantep north to Kahramanmaraş and south to Kilis and, yes, Aleppo itself. My Turkish friends may unFriend me for saying this, but this is an area with a pronounced Arab influence (Gaziantep, thoroughly Turkish today, was once an Arab town called Aintab or Aintep) and this is definitely an Arab sauce because of the name—hamra, meaning red which of course it is.
Serve it with pieces of Arab pita bread, lightly toasted, to dip in, although it’s delightful too with a selection of crisp, raw vegetables.
The photo above is the muhammara served at Akdeniz Hatay Sofrasi in Istanbul (İskender Paşa, Ahmediye Cd. No:44, in the Fatih district), a restaurant that specializes in wonderful flavors from the southern region that rests, like a narrow finger of Turkey, against the western border of Syria. Hatay’s muhammara was initially almost too hot for my taste, but cooled down with a spoonful of yogurt, it was perfect.
In the following recipe, which comes from my book Virgin Territory: Exploring the World of Olive Oil, you may adjust the heat by increasing or decreasing the amount of chili used. The best chili used to be crushed Aleppo pepper but even though you can buy something called Aleppo pepper, it no longer, alas, comes from that ravaged town. Instead, use Turkish red pepper. Maraş biber from Kahramanmaraş, or Urfa biber from Sanliurfa are available on many websites, including www.kalustyans.com, www.worldspice.com, and www.thespicehouse.com. Do not use Mexican or Thai chili peppers–they will be much too hot. These sites are also good sources for pomegranate syrup, sometimes called “molasses,” which is essential also for muhammara.
Sweet peppers are best when roasted over live fire—a gas flame on your cooktop or charcoal embers in the fireplace or on the outside grill. Roast, turning frequently, until the skins are black and blistered. Failing gas or charcoal, you can also roast peppers under the oven broiler until they are collapsed and the skins are blistered—but they will not have the intense flavor of flame-roasted peppers. Whatever the method, put the roasted peppers in a paper bag and set aside for 15 or 20 minutes to steam in their own heat and soften. At that point it’s easy to remove the blackened skin, using a paring knife to pull it away. Then cut the peppers open and discard the stems, seeds, and white inside membranes. Chop coarsely for this recipe.
Roast the walnuts and the pine nuts in a 350º oven for 10 to 15 minutes. The walnuts are ready when their thin skins start to flake off, the pine nuts are done when they are golden.
Makes 2 ½ to 3 cups.
4 roasted red sweet peppers, peeled and chopped
1 tablespoon ground or crushed Middle Eastern red chili pepper
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 1⁄2 cups walnuts, roasted
1⁄2 cup dried bread crumbs
2 tablespoons pomegranate syrup (pomegranate “molasses”)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
4 to 6 tablespoons olive oil
Roasted pine nuts for garnish
Combine all the ingredients except the olive oil in a food processor, a blender or a mortar and blend, crushing, until quite smooth but still with a little texture. Pulse in 4 tablespoons of the olive oil, one at a time, and check the consistency. You want a spreadable but not too drippy-liquid texture. Add a little more oil if it seems called for.
Spoon the muhammara into a bowl and garnish with the toasted pine nuts. Before serving, top with a driblet of olive oil and serve with crackers or toasted quarters of pita bread. Or with fresh, raw vegetables.
Note to cooks: Muhammara is also a beautiful relish to serve with any sort of roast or grilled lamb.