Monday, August 31, 2009

The Heat of the Matter


The Heat of the Matter | Originally Published May 2009

In a sun-soaked valley in southern turkey, hospitality still rules and chile peppers are a constant presence in people’s lives.
t’s dusk in Şanlıurfa, 30 miles from the Syrian border in south-central Turkey. From our hotel terrace, we watch birds glide through the apricot-gold light that slants onto the building below, a shrine to the birthplace of Abraham. The first notes of the call to prayer float up to us, a single voice becoming a syncopated cacophony as a dozen muezzins from other mosques join in. This moment, I think, is why I love Turkey. Okay, maybe this moment and the food. In fact, I could swear I detect on the breeze the slightly harsh, sweetly vegetal aroma of the peppers that brought me here.

These are not just any peppers. They are, you might say, an obsession. And obsessions are unpredictable. Sometimes one springs full-blown into your consciousness; at other times, it grows slowly, almost unnoticed, until a friend says to you, “Do you have to put those Turkish peppers on everything?”
Well, just about.
In every café and kebab joint in Turkey, you will find Urfa and Maras, two dried, flaked red chile peppers, set out on the table. Urfa, named for the city, now called Şanlıurfa, near which it is grown, is a deep oxblood red, with an earthy, rather smoky flavor that contains, oddly, an echo of tobacco. Cherry-red Maras, which takes its name from the nearby town of Kahramanmaraş, has a brighter flavor, brash and fruity but with a very faint edge of bitterness. With both, the complex initial taste is followed by a mild, slow-building heat that lingers tantalizingly in the mouth. Added to a dish, these peppers deepen and broaden all the other flavors. Leave them out, and the food seems somehow flatter.
Over the course of several visits to Istanbul and coastal Turkey, I had become addicted. Back home, I found myself tossing the peppers into stews, rubbing them onto chops before putting them on the grill, and generally making them part of my daily cooking routine. A little pinch of Maras in that vinaigrette? Sure. A sprinkling of Urfa on the poached eggs? Why not?
After a while, though, even that wasn’t enough. As with artisanal products from all over the world, these peppers taste of the sun, air, and soil where they were grown. What is it, I wondered, about that place that gives them their unique character? I wanted to get to know the culinary equivalent of the peppers’ families. I needed to go to the source.
“We live always with this pepper; it is the constant in our lives,” says Ömer Aksoy, a representative of pepper producer Harran İsot, plucking a perfectly red Urfa from a low-growing plant. “The first batch we pick green and eat raw; the last ones, just before the rains begin, are the hottest—those are for flavoring.” In the morning, he explains, young children will clean a couple of peppers, take them to the fırın (communal oven), put them on the side to roast, then bring them home and eat them for breakfast, slathered with butter. But his personal favorite way to eat the fresh peppers is in a condiment called salça, which he translates as “pepper marmalade.” A classic folk product, it’s made differently in each region. Although there are mass-produced versions in some places, here it is made by hand, exactly the way it has been made for centuries, and only for use in the home. The villagers, he explains, like to spread it on bread and sprinkle it with ground hazelnuts or walnuts as a snack, or top it with a couple of fresh eggs for breakfast.
Sounds good to me. “Can we get ahold of some?” I ask. After a quick cellphone call, he says, “They will be making it today in Yaylak, a village not far from here. Let’s go.”
Driving to the village through the barren landscape of the Bozova Valley, we stop to watch Urfa peppers being harvested in a small field. Because they ripen at different rates, there are three or four separate pickings each season, which means the process cannot be mechanized—or at least, no machine has yet been developed that can search a plant and select only the ripe peppers. So, like many fruit and vegetable crops all over the world, the Maras are picked primarily by migrant workers, most of whom live in temporary huts adjoining the fields. Moving slowly across the rows, bent over, carefully plucking the red specimens and placing them in large white sacks, the workers are friendly but businesslike, eager to fill as many sacks as possible in the relative cool of the morning.
Except for the tractor idling at the side of the field, we could be back in the early days of the Ottoman Empire. But, as in modernizing countries everywhere, technology is very likely to be making changes, and very soon.
This had become clear to me on the previous day in Kahramanmaraş. The day began with a tour of a plant where the peppers, after being picked, sorted, stemmed, and dried—either the old-fashioned way, out in the sun, or in specially designed commercial ovens—are chopped and ground. The resulting small flakes may then be mixed with up to 30 percent seeds, as well as some salt and oil. The highest quality, however, is mixed with only a tiny amount of salt and oil and sold (or used personally) as is. Urfa peppers, I learned later, are also briefly fermented after drying, which gives them their dark color and smoky flavor.
Then we went out to see the Maras peppers in the field. Strolling through the rather haphazard rows, a grower explained the timeless appeal of his product. “This dry climate, which has just enough rain, is ideal for them,” he said proudly. “That, and the soil, give them their flavor. People have grown them in other places, but they don’t taste the same.”
Just then a man dressed in a short-sleeved white shirt and gray pants walked briskly across the field to join us. Kemal Belpınar turned out to be from a local branch of the Turkish Ministry of Agriculture, and he excitedly told me about possible future projects: increasing the crop by using hybrid seeds from Spain; starting the peppers in the richer soil of Adana and transplanting them here; perhaps even adopting a method pioneered by the Israelis of treating the peppers with chemicals so they all ripen simultaneously and therefore can be picked by machine.
Despite my efforts to appear approving, I think he saw the dismay in my face. To me, it seems like they are starting down a path—standardization, mechanization, selecting and growing plants for ease of harvesting and shipping rather than for flavor—that we in the United States went down long ago and are now trying to reverse.
But there is no evidence of this trend in Yaylak. As we drive into the village, we see no other cars, only donkey-drawn carts. Indeed, the sole mechanical device immediately in evidence is a kind of oversize meat grinder set up on the porch of a tiny store. This, it seems, is for making salça.
I ask what preparation is necessary before the peppers are dumped into the grinder. After a long, muttered conversation among several of the men, we are led into an interior courtyard. There, a group of women (noticeably absent from the small crowd that has gathered in front of the store) sit around a cloth spread out on the dirt. Grabbing peppers from piles behind them, they split them open with a whack of a wooden mallet, clear out the seeds with their fingers, then rip the peppers in half and toss them into blue plastic buckets. Visibly uneasy in our presence, they nevertheless work with the grace and fluidity born of repeating the same motions they have made tens of thousands of times before.
When the buckets are full, the men take them around to the front of the building, where a boy of about 16 switches on the grinder. He begins to dump in the peppers, and almost instantly my lungs are seared with fumes so harsh that even when I walk 20 feet away, I can’t stop coughing. It’s like the vegetable equivalent of tear gas. The boy, meanwhile, calmly feeds bucket after bucket of peppers into the maw of the grinder, not so much as blinking at the fumes.
The next step on the road to salça will be to add a bit of olive oil to the puréed peppers, then spread the mixture out in large round metal pans on the rooftops, where it will dry and thicken in the sun over several days as it is scraped and turned. “It is the sun that gives our peppers their sweetness and that dries the paste,” says Aksoy. Finally, salt and extra-virgin olive oil are stirred in, and the coarse paste is ready to eat.
I am promised a taste, but first there is another stop. “They are going to slaughter a lamb for you in Hacılar,” Aksoy announces. Only strenuous protests manage to persuade him to call and dissuade our hosts. But when we arrive, after a stroll through another field of drying peppers, we are ushered into the home of a village elder. There, in a large room layered with thick carpets and lined with pillows, the boys of the family lay out a feast: fresh-killed chicken, its flavor astonishingly deep and clean; rice pilaf larded with currants and pine nuts; still-warm whole-wheat flatbread with an amazing texture, at once grainy and tender; thick homemade yogurt studded with cucumber from the garden outside the door; çoban salatası, the classic “shepherd’s salad,” here flavored with sweet-sour pomegranate molasses; a huge platter of sweet green grapes; the salted yogurt drink known as ayran; and, of course, tea. It is only after we begin eating that we remember that this is Ramadan, and none of our hosts are able to share so much as a glass of water along with us. Yet they urge us to eat. “We like people with an appetite,” says one of the man’s sons.
It is an incredible meal, and an equally inspiring setting. I ask Aksoy about the room, much fancier than the rest of the dwelling. “It is the misafirhane, the guest chamber,” he replies. “This is where peace is created. When a guest comes, they give everything they have.”
After we leave the room and start to say good-bye, another boy comes to us with a small bowl of salça. I take a dab and put it in my mouth. There is no heat, just an unusually sweet and pure version of the Maras’s bright flavor, with a slightly musky, vegetal undertone. In a second, though, the heat blooms, not just in the back of my throat but throughout my mouth. It’s not intense, but it’s strong enough to make me laugh. The villagers gathered around all laugh, too, an expression of shared pleasure but also of pride. This is perhaps the best gift they could have given—my obsession has been justified.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Keşkek-Wedding Pulse

Kashkak, keşkek, kashkeg, kishkak, kashkek, etc. is a sort of meat and wheat or barley stew found in Turkish cuisine. The word kashkak is a Persian diminutive of kashk, to which it is related. It is documented in Iran and Greater Syria as early as the 15th century, but is no longer eaten there. Keşkek is a wedding breakfast for Anatolia in Turkey.

Keşkek is called "Haşıl" in Northeast and Middle Anatolia regions in Turkey. It is a common meal frequently consumed during religious festivals, weddings or funerals.


Françoise Aubaile-Sallenave, "Al-Kishk: the past and present of a complex culinary practice", in Sami Zubaida and Richard Tapper, A Taste of Thyme: Culinary Cultures of the Middle East, London and New York, 1994 and 2000, ISBN 1-86064-603-4.


* 1 tablespoon sunflower oil
* 1/4 tablespoon salt
* 3 tablespoons margarine
* 2 large onions
* 1/2 tablespoon cinnamon
* 1000 gr. mutton neck
* 1000 gr. soft, white wheat


355 cal (6 servings)

Soak wheat in cold water and allow to stand for 8 hours. Put the wheat, the mutton neck cut into 4-5 pieces, and enough water to cover, into a saucepan, and boil till the wheat and meat become tender. Strain the necks and bone them. After straining the wheat, add the meat and salt and blend well with a wooden spoon. Dice the onions and saute in sunflower oil till golden. Drain the onions and add to the meat and wheat, adn blend with a wooden spoon till the mixture becomes pasty. Top with melted butter and cinnamon before serving.

Kashkek is a traditional Turkish dish which is still served, especially at wedding feasts, in many regions in Anatolis, and more recently, in luxurous restaurants which serve Turkish specialities and have included kashkek on their menues.