It’s hard to believe it’s been 18 years since I was last in Aleppo. For many people, that’s a lifetime, but for me, it’s as if it were only yesterday. Long before Syria was torn to shreds by civil war, I spent several
delightful weeks there, so the idea of a night at Nina June, my daughter’s restaurant, devoted to Aleppo’s great cuisine has special appeal for me. (That will be next Thursday, April 12; reservations at 207-236-8880 or http://www.ninajunerestaurant.com.)
One characteristic of Aleppo’s cuisine was a famous deep red pepper grown in the fields around the city, dried in the sun (often on the flat roofs of city buildings) and ground into powder or turned into paste. Those peppers had a deliciously round, mouth-filling flavor–dare I call it the umami of chili? But, unlike any from other chili-pepper cultures, these were not especially hot. Spicy, aromatic, flavorful is the description, and yes, with a bit of a kick but not anything that sends you rushing for the water pitcher.
Much of the flavor came from the way they were treated, alternately drying in the sun and then, at night, packed up so they sweated and fermented just a little (and fermentation is often the source of what we call umami flavor).
Writing about this, I’m reminded that a similar alternation of ambiance is behind the rich flavors of some wines–in the Rhone valley, for instance, and Carneros at the northern tip of San Francisco Bay, wine grapes, while ripening, are exposed to flavor-boosting hot days and cool, damp nights. And in Gragnano, overlooking the Bay of Naples, the pasta was famously flavorful because of a similar alternation. Dried outdoors in the hot southern sun, then left out to absorb the damp sea breezes that came up in the evenings off the sea.
I don’t want to make too much of this but it does seem significant and interesting that peppers, wines and pasta all gain greatly from this kind of exposure. In southern Turkey, similar peppers are grown and processed in a similar way, alternating dry and damp, hot (extremely hot) and cool, to develop fragrance and flavor, but nothing has the true Aleppo taste (and nothing ever will–because that flavor is locked in memory).
Here are some of the ways that I saw and tasted and smelled those peppers in Aleppo 18 years ago:
- In mhammara, a dense sauce that appears on almost every table as a meze dip with triangles of flat bread, a rich dark brick-red blend of ground walnuts mixed with both fresh peppers and dried ones, along with the almost equally ubiquitous pomegranate syrup, dibsl roumann;
- In a refreshing salad, also served as part of a meze, of crisp, salty green olives chopped and mixed with raw vegetables, pomegranate syrup, and a healthy sprinkle of dried red peppers;
- Sparking up the beany mash that is shaped into dumplings and deep-fried for falafel, a favorite street food;
- As a garnish for the great Friday stew called fatteh, served in the open-air restaurants outside the labyrinthine warren of Aleppo’s souqs on the Moslem day of rest, a combination of toasted flatbread topped with a meat, bean, or vegetable stew and a dollop of yogurt; crushed Aleppo peppers and chopped fresh mint are stirred into warm olive oil or melted butter and poured over the top before it’s sent to the table;
- As an essential spice in the meat mixture that tops lahm ajeen (lahmaçun in Turkish), aka Armenian pizza, little discs of dough with a topping of ground meat, peppers and pine nuts;
- As a dollop of bright pepper paste, added to a humble plate of beans at the most popular and oldest bean stew vendor in Aleppo, Abu Abdo. (“Yes, that’s Abu Abdo,” my Syrian host explained,“ pointing to the elderly man who was doling out steaming bowls of thick bean soup, called fool, to a crowd of hungry men and boys, “but his father was Abu Abdo, too, and his father before him. Perhaps they weren’t really ever Abu Abdo at all, but that’s what they’ve always been called.”)