Australians seem to harbour a deep adoration of Turkish food in Australia, yet some of us have barely scratched the surface of this multifaceted cuisine. Late night pide pit stops or sprawling meze plates notwithstanding, Turkish fare consists of myriad fusions, stemming from Central Asian, Middle Eastern and Balkan cuisines – a complex arrangement of flavours we hardly recognise at 2 am after a big night out.
One Turkish staple that’s somewhat lesser-known in Australia is biber salçasi, (pronounced bee-bear sal-chasi), which translates to English literally as ‘pepper paste’. Biber salçasi hails from the Anatolian region of Turkey and is enjoyed by a variety of ethnic groups as a spread, or as a special addition to any homecooked Turkish dish.
“I always say the secret ingredient to turn any homestyle casserole-like dish into a Turkish dish is to mix pepper paste with half the amount of tomato paste you plan to use,” says Turkish-Australian chef Somer Sivrioglu. Sivrioglu heads up two of Sydney’s premiere Turkish restaurants, Efendy in Balmain and Anason in Barangaroo, so we know he's a reliable source. “Pepper paste gives an incredible umami kick to any dish," he tells SBS.
Sivrioglu was born in Kadikoy, Istanbul, and grew up eating the food made by his two Balkan grandmothers. “Kadikoy was one of the few remaining multicultural suburbs in Istanbul, with a strong Greek, Armenian and Jewish population,” he tells SBS. “As a result, I grew up eating the food of the real Istanbulites before the city was taken over by rural immigration from the east. One of my grandmothers was from Skopje and the other from Mitrovica, so I grew up with olive oil-braised vegetables, boreks, dolmas and milk puddings.” Sivrioglu recalls eating homemade biber salçasi as a kid, spread thick over slices of Turkish bread as a snack.
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.
Alongside eggplants, lentils, zucchini, and meats like lamb and beef, red peppers are seen as key ingredients in the catalogue of Turkish cooking. They’re used for dolma (stuffed vegetables) and as the basis sauces and dips like muhammara (Turkish walnut-capsicum dip). At Efendy, Sivrioglu uses capsicum sauce as an accompaniment to ezmeli kebap (kebab with tomato and capsicum sauce).
As a result, biber salçasi is one of the more popular condiments in Turkey, but it’s yet to gain as much traction in Australia. “It’s a common ingredient that you can find in any grocer, but it’s used more commonly in the eastern part of the country, particularly during the winter months” Sivrioglu explains, “While it’s gaining popularity in the west, we don’t use it much in Australia except in the ethnic communities. Balkan immigrants use a fresher and less-aged version of it called ajvar, and Turks use pepper paste available in Auburn and other suburbs with high a Middle Eastern population.” If you’re in Sydney trying to sniff some out, Sivrioglu recommends heading to Enmore’s Stanbuli. In Melbourne, make a beeline for Tulum or Lezzet.
Of course, you could always try making your own. Use hot chilli peppers, and you’ll end up with aci biber salçasi (literally ‘hot pepper paste’), but Sivrioglu’s version uses sweet peppers or capsicums to a more mild effect – tatli biber salçsasi.
- 1 kg of red capsicum
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 tsp salt
- Remove the stalks and seeds from the peppers and roughly chop
- Boil the chopped pieces in a little water for 1 hour (lid on)
- Strain the capsicum, then puree the pieces in a blender
- Simmer the puree for 1 hour (lid off)
- Stir in 1½ tbsp olive oil and salt
- Pour the paste into clean jars while still warm, top with remaining olive oil and seal
Make like Sivrioglu and spread your biber salçasi over warm bread with a bit of butter, or use it to marinate beef, lamb or chicken.
Want to read more from Somer Sivrioglu? Here are his tips for mastering Turkish at home.