A unique ingredient from Turkey, where it is used most widely in the south of the country, pepper paste is a highly concentrated puree made from various types of cooked, peeled capsicums. It comes in a few permutations, namely tatli (or “sweet” ) and aci (“hot”), with a mild version in between. Called biber salçası in Turkish, pepper paste is incorporated into a wide variety of dishes, and used in much the same way (and sometimes in tandem with) tomato paste. It gets used in a whole raft of dishes, from dips, spreads and salads through to stews, pilafs, soups, marinades and in fillings for dolma (stuffed vegetables), borek (pastries) and pide (Turkish pizza) as well.
Although biber salçası comes in commercial iterations, it's not uncommon to see Turkish women preparing a year’s worth of the paste in autumn, when there is a glut of peppers, for use throughout the following year. The paste they make is sun-dried in large trays on the tops of flat-roofed homes; the heat of the sun concentrates the flavor of the peeled, pureed peppers and turns the paste a beautiful burnished red colour. Good homemade pepper paste can be eaten as a snack with nothing more than bread, butter and some feta cheese. The mass-produced, industrial ones are more akin to tomato paste and better suited to cooking.
By Turkish standards, this yields a modest amount, so feel free to double or even triple the quantities. The time the paste takes to reduce and thicken will depend on the size of your saucepan so choose a large one with plenty of surface area for evaporation if you are making a larger quantity. Choose hot paprika if you want a slightly spicy paste. Char the capsicums over a hot barbecue or even under an oven grill if more convenient than gas, although using the oven won’t give you that lovely smoky flavour.
2. Red capsicum and yoghurt dip
Chargrill 3 red capsicums then cool and peel, discarding seeds. Combine in a food processor with 3 cloves of crushed garlic, 2½ tbsp olive oil, 2 tbsp pepper paste, a large pinch dried chilli flakes and process until smooth. Season well then stir in lemon juice to taste and 180 ml (¾ cup) Greek yoghurt. Serve scattered with chopped pistachios.
Here’s a fun idea for a picnic or sunday lunch - a loaf you don't need to slice! Simply pull sections apart to serve. The secret is in the way the uncooked dough is cut, coiled then placed into the tin - it’s actually simple to do. You can vary the filling ingredients too if you like, by adding slices of salami or prosciutto, using chopped sundried tomatoes instead of olives, or substituting basil leaves for the oregano.
4. Chopped tomato and cucumber salad (ezme salatasi)
Trim, seed then very finely chop 3 large ripe tomatoes, 1 Lebanese cucumber, 1 red capsicum and 1 Spanish onion. Whisk together 2 crushed garlic cloves, 1½ tbsp pepper paste, 1 tbsp pomegranate molasses, 3 tbsp lemon juice and 100 ml olive oil. Combine with the vegetables, season to taste then stir in a chopped handful each of parsley and coriander. Serve sprinkled with sumac.
6. Red capsicum and chorizo tarts
Place 2 partially thawed frozen, pre-rolled squares of puff pastry on separate oven trays. Spread each lightly with pepper paste then scatter over each the torn flesh of 1 peeled charred capsicum and 1 crumbled chorizo sausage. Sprinkle each with ½ cup grated Parmesan and bake at 200ºC for 35 minutes or until pastry is golden and crisp. Serve hot, cut in squares, with rocket salad.
7. Chickpea, bulghur and mint pilaf
Cook 1 large chopped onion in 2½ tbsp oil in a large saucepan until tender. Stir in 1½ cups rinsed coarse burghul (bulgur), 2½ tbsp pepper paste and 1 tsp ground allspice. Add 2¼ cups chicken stock, bring to a simmer then cook, covered, for 15 minutes. Add a 400 g can drained chickpeas, cover then cook for 5 minutes or until liquid is absorbed. Season well and serve scattered with chopped mint and crumbled feta.
This Turkish soup is made for the winter months. The juicy lamb meatballs and spicy-sweet broth offer a comforting, more-ish quality, while silverbeet, lentils and chickpeas add nutritional peace of mind. Be sure to give your soup long enough on the stove, so those delicious, punchy flavours can fully develop.
9. Cuttlefish with wine and pepper paste
Cut 1 kg cleaned cuttlefish into rings and reserve tentacles. Cook 3 large sliced onions in ½ cup olive oil in a large pan for 8 minutes or until softened then add all the cuttlefish. Cook until the liquid evaporates. Add ¼ cup pepper paste, 1 cup red wine, a handful of capers, 5 whole allspice, 1 bay leaf and 1 tsp dried oregano. Cook, covered, over medium heat for 1½ hours or until cuttlefish is very tender.
Lamb pairs brilliantly with the earthy, spicy, sweet flavours that typify Middle Eastern cookery, especially when roasted. Here a boneless shoulder has been used, but a boneless leg would work just as well. You could also use this stuffing for a roast chicken and serve it with the same rich, honeyed wine and onion sauce.
Photography, styling and food preparation by china squirrel.
Have we got your attention and your tastebuds? Tune in 6pm weeknights to SBS as this week The Chefs' Line explores rich Turkish cuisine. Check out the program page for episode guides, cuisine lowdowns, recipes and more.