Ihsan travelled to Turkey with Gourmet Magazine to film an episode of Gourmet’s Diary of a Foodie. While there, Ihsan had the opportunity to visit pepper producers both large and small in both the Urfa and the Maraş pepper producing regions.
Maraş and Urfa peppers take their names from the cities near which the peppers are grown. Maraş comes from the area around the city of Kahramanmaraş and Urfa comes from the region surrounding the city of Şanliurfa both of which are in the south-central region of Turkey near the Syrian border. The more common names Maraş and Urfa drop the leading formal designation of Kahraman or Şanli which are used to designate a city in Turkey where a famous battle was waged.
These peppers are known for their complex flavor and medium heat which compliment many dishes from vegetables to seafood to steak. The Urfa pepper is a larger pepper with a rounded tip while the Maraş pepper is smaller and has a more pointed tip.
Drying peppers turn what is an otherwise drab and dusty landscape into a striking palette of red from the bright reds of the freshly picked peppers to the deeper hue of the fully dried peppers. The process of drying the peppers can take place in tables elevated off the ground, in wood-framed screens or on tarps placed directly on the ground.
When fully dried, the peppers offer the peak of concentrated flavor but this is only fully realized when the pepper is ground to the desired texture which melds both the skins and seeds into the fruity heat we have come to love. The color, texture and flavor of the final dried and crushed pepper depends on the ripeness of the pepper when picked, the length of drying time, the amount of grinding and the quantity of oil and salt added to the finished product. We look for our Maraş to have a deep red color with little oil or salt, a medium-strong heat and a bright fruity flavor while our Urfa has an almost purple color, a mellow heat and a fruity and smoky flavor.
The massive granite wheel used to grind the dried peppers looks like those we’ve seen at traditional oil mills in Italy and France. It rotates slowly to keep a cool temperature and to retain all of the essential flavors of the pepper. Once the peppers have reached the desired grind, the resulting pepper flake may be combined with salt and/or oil to create a smoother texture and a bit more punch of flavor. The highest quality Maraş and Urfa peppers (such as those we select) are processed with minimal salt or oil.
The results of this lengthy process is the ground pepper which is packaged in 25 kilo bags ready to be sent out to markets throughout Turkey and beyond. We receive our peppers in these bags and we repackage them into manageable 4 ounce containers for home use. Chefs from around the country work with our peppers and our kitchen has developed a few favorite recipes using the peppers.
The spice markets throughout Istanbul stock a variety of peppers from all over the country. While Maraş and Urfa are the most famous regions for their peppers, other regions such as Gaziantep also produce their own peppers. A multitude of other spices and spice blends are specific to each individual market. When trying to track down the best peppers from a particular region, you invariably get the answer from the spice merchant that theirs are the best.