Chile peppers hold a very special place in Turkish cuisine. Varying in flavor and heat levels, they are frequently sprinkled onto dishes at the end of cooking and offered as condiments. Their hot red peppers, while providing heat do not by any means compare to Ghost Chiles on the Scoville scale (the chiles I discuss below do not even rival cayenne in heat). In Turkey, chiles are typically used in savory dishes, especially meat dishes; however, Turkish peppers are very versatile and compliment many dishes ranging from vegetables to soups. After Christopher Columbus discovered chile peppers in the New World (in a failed attempt to find westward routes to India for peppercorns) the use of chiles was adopted by cultures across the globe. Introduced to present day Turkey via Greece, Anatolia (the Asian side of Turkey) provided dry, warm and fertile soil that was very hospitable to chiles. Certain areas of Turkey such as Maras (pronounces Marash) and Urfa became known for their peppers. There are so many chile peppers (and different names by which they can be labeled) that it can be rather tricky to navigate your way through them. Below, I have attempted to scratch the surface by selecting three very specific chile peppers; the pul, maras and urfa peppers (or as they call peppers in Turkey biber); as well as generically reviewing paprika (which is complicated in its own way). These are popular chiles that are commonly found throughout Istanbul.
Pul biber is a common red chile found in Istanbul spice shops. It is also called, and more commonly known in the US, as Aleppo pepper. This fruity chile offers a moderate heat level and has a beautiful red hue. This pepper has become increasingly popular within America. It has served me well as a reliable “go to” whenever a Turkish recipe calls for red pepper and I personally favor it over standard crushed red pepper.
Maras biber is another red chile pepper that is sometimes referred to as Turkish red pepper. Similar in flavor to pul biber and of a medium heat level, it is frequently used throughout Turkey. Many restaurants have small dishes of maras biber on the table alongside the salt and pepper. Many list it as a must for kebabs and kofte (Turkish meatballs).
Urfa biber flakes have a beautiful dark color (almost black) with purple hues. At some Istanbul spice shops, you may find it labeled as “black chile pepper”. While it is a red pepper, the dried Urfa chile develops its darker coloring during the drying process. Its flavor is mildly smoky, with raisin tones and its heat level is medium. While popular in savory dishes in Turkey, many are touting its use in desserts and sweet dishes, including pairing it with chocolate. I am very fond of Urfa pepper and particularly enjoy it on eggplant.
This might be a surprise to you, but paprika really is a chile pepper and it is popular in Turkish cuisine. Used when a sweeter and milder flavor is desired over red pepper flakes, paprika’s’ heat level and strength can vary between regions in Turkey. One fun tale, for all you romantics, about how paprika came to be in Hungary involves the Ottoman Empire. As the story goes, during the Ottoman domination of Hungary, a Turkish pasa (a Turkish man of prominence, pronounced pasha) fell for a beautiful Hungarian woman and moved her to his harem (forcing her to leave behind her Hungarian lover). This harem had a garden in which red peppers, used by the Turks as a spice, grew. The woman took seeds from these peppers and gave them to her lover who she met using a secret passage. Her lover planted the seeds which eventually spread all throughout Hungary.
It is impossible not to be exposed to chile peppers when eating Turkish dishes. A crucial element in Turkish food, it took root in Turkey’s cuisine as perfectly as it did in Turkey’s soil.