One perk of working at a place that specializes in Middle Eastern, Eastern Mediterranean, and Turkish food is constant exposure to ingredients I’m unfamiliar with. Being told to grab XYZ from dry storage (the pantry of restaurant kitchens) or the walk-in (aka the fridge) is often an exercise in discovering what XYZ looks like, smells like, tastes like, even how it’s pronounced. It’s a fun, interesting, and provocative, though sometimes frustrating, part of the job, especially when I spend ten minutes looking for “rigani” (RI-ga-ni, not ri-GA-ni) without knowing if it’s a vegetable or grain or dairy product. But of course, above all it’s a learning experience, and I’m now one step ahead of where I was before, knowing that rigani is wild oregano from the mountains of Greece.
I can’t remember when I started eating things like hummus, falafel, and olives, when I first heard of za’atar and tahini; but it wasn’t that long before I went to college, if it even was before that. I think the first time I had moussaka was when I traveled to some Southeast Asian country a couple years ago during my time abroad. I ate my fair share of non-Chinese food as a kid, but Big Macs and KFC were as exotic as it got. Tzatziki, spanakopita, saganaki, these could have been the names of cities or ancient texts as far as I was concerned, and I’m guessing that growing up, a lot of second-generation Asian-Americans, whether raised in the suburbs, boonies or urban Chinatowns, probably were as ignorant as I was of this region’s exquisite culinary offerings.
I recently discovered urfa biber, a chile pepper grown in the Urfa region of Turkey. The peppers are sun-dried during the day and then sweated overnight to infuse the flesh with the distinct sweet and smoky flavor. As a result of the two-step process of preparation, urfa pepper flakes still retain a good bit of moisture, unlike conventional red pepper flakes. They won’t scorch your tongue; instead, their flavor lingers — a little chocolate, a little raisin, a little meaty smoke, all in front of this pleasant tingle that washes over your mouth. While they won’t blow you away with outright fieriness, they will give you pause with their depth and with their stunning hue: this intense dark reddish-purple that is just downright sexy. I knew I wanted to cook with them as soon as I laid eyes on them. Earlier this week, I experimented with them in a hybrid romesco-muhammara sauce to help exoticize some lamb patties. The ingredients: one de-skinned, de-seeded roasted red pepper, a generous tablespoon of urfa, a handful of almonds, a splash of olive oil, a minced garlic clove, a pinch of cumin and paprika, S&P, and a secret ingredient that will remain anonymous for now. The result was earthy and deep, a revelation: the sweetness from the pepper, the nuttiness of the almonds, the edge of bitterness from the secret ingredient, the fruitiness of the olive oil (and the squeeze of lemon juice I added at the end), were all enhanced by the urfa biber, which also provided the tingle of warmth that brought everything together and the “je sais pas” quality that intrigued. With some tweaking, this sauce could be a showstopper.
Working two jobs and making a pretty major life transition has left little time for blogging, but I’m hoping to jump back on the wagon with this post. Food blogging is an indulgence, but it provides this crucial creative and contemplative release that only becomes more vital as the times get crazier. And my, are they crazy.