No, it’s not a love story – though the fragrance of Urfa could easily conjure memories.
It’s a pepper I’d never heard of until I came across it on a TV cooking show called Simply Ming and was intrigued by the way the 2 men oohed and ahhed over it.
It was supposed to be kind of like a Turkish chipotle pepper, smoky and raisin flavoured. And it went into a dish called Charred Broccoli and Butternut Squash Hummus . Whew. The pepper went into the broccoli part, not the hummus. And a lot went into it.
Anyway, I can’t resist a new pepper, especially one that’s more on flavour than heat. My Evel Knievel dare-devil inferno swallowing days are over.
For fun, I looked up where I might get the stuff. A Turkish grocery store just happened to be close by – with parking.
The place is the Istanbul Marche, off Dufferin just south of Yorkdale. I’ve been by it so many times it’s embarrassing. But there it was and in I went.
These days I give up trying to look the sophisticate and just ask the man behind the feta cheese counter: “Do you have Urfa?” Naturally, he’d never heard the word before.
Maybe he was thinking of the Urfa that was a girl’s name and meant “Flower of Heaven”?
But he kindly walked me through the store and showed me where they had all the bulk spices and goodies.
I saw something that looked like it could be Urfa but it was called Isot Pepper. I looked it up on my phone and, yes, Isot and Urfa are the same thing. It’s also called Aleppo pepper – as it mostly comes from the area of Turkey near Syria.
I scooped a pile into a bag.
And the cooks were right. It had this unmistakable heady smell of smoke and raisins.
On the way back to the cash, I avoided all the olives, halvah, feta, unknown bakery items and ran right into an entire showcase dedicated to packaged Urfa. About 4 feet tall, there were dozens of pre-packaged bags of it. So it wasn’t some specialty item restricted to the bulk rack. Obviously the customers here buy a lot of it.
Well, all that satisfied the explorer in me. Now it was time to use the stuff.
Traditionally, in Turkish cuisine, Urfa is used in a lot of vegetable dishes like eggplant with yogurt .
I’d already defrosted chicken drumsticks for dinner so that was what I was going to experiment with.
I have a great chicken recipe from my friend, Sindiswa, which originates in South Africa. It calls for cooking down a lot of onion and fresh tomatoes and adding curry spices – with extra cardamom and ginger. That’s all simmered until it’s a thick sauce. Add the chicken and braise away for a couple of hours. Works every time.
Flying completely by the seat of my pants, I added a couple of tablespoons worth of the Urfa. I was a little disconcerted by all the black specks in the sauce but I guess that’s what makes it authentic.
The result was wonderful. Not as hot as chipotles would have been, the Urfa adds some of the smokiness and the “raisin” flavour that it’s known for. The heat is the kind I call a “slow fuse” heat. A bit like the Italian Bomba sauce, it doesn’t set your mouth on fire like a Habanero pepper or blow your scalp off like wasabi. It has an initial warmth when you take that first taste, but keeps getting warmer in your stomach. But very pleasantly.
Our guests that night wanted the recipe. I’d actually made the dish before for them, but this time they wanted the recipe. It wasn’t about the heat, it was about the flavour.
Next stop, Urfa with eggplant and yogurt.
1. Eggplant by Michael Franks fr: The Art of Tea
2. Istanbul by They Might Be Giants fr: Flood
3. Before the Dawn by Patrice Rushen fr: Before the Dawn