My introduction to Aleppo pepper came when I cooked Syrian Baked Lamb Kibbeh with my friend Anton and his son. Anton’s family is from Aleppo and he remembers his mother and grandmother often using the pepper in their recipes.
Spices have a family connection for me, too. My father was in the spice business when I was small. As an adult, I’ve discovered that my ancestor, Philip Kumin, was a spice merchant in Eastern Europe. And then there is my last name. although spelled with a “k,” we pronounce it the same as cumin.
The Origins of Aleppo Pepper
Although the Aleppo pepper gets its name (and identity) from a city in Syria, its origins go back to the West Indies. The spice trade moved the peppers that began there to Europe and then to the Middle East. Along the way, new species of chiles, including Aleppo peppers, grew up. As the continuing war in Syria has disrupted supplies of the spice from that source, Americans and others have taken up growing Aleppo pepper from seeds. If you’re interested in this aspect of Aleppo pepper, check the article my friend Cathy Barrow wrote for National Geographic about efforts to continue to propagate the Aleppo pepper outside of its war-ravaged home country.
Taste & Heat
Like other plants, peppers have a genus and a species within the genus. The scientific name for the pepper genus is capsicum. Aleppo pepper is part of the species known as capsicum annum. That species includes both sweet and hot peppers, as well as many in between. Aleppo pepper, also known as a halaby chile, is one of those in the middle. It has heat, but not nearly that of a habanero or even cayenne pepper. A Scientific American blogpost describes Aleppo pepper as having “a distinctive fruitiness with earthy flavor and hints of cumin.”
The Scoville scale measures the spiciness or heat of peppers. (It goes from 0 units up to 3,200,000 units.) Bell and pimento peppers, which have no heat, are at 0 on the Scoville scale. Poblano peppers get a 1,000 – 2,000 Scoville score, while Serrano can range from 8,000 – 23,000. Cayenne comes in at 30,000 – 50,000 Scoville units. Habanero are among the hottest in the species, with a 200,000 – 350,000 rating. Aleppo is in the 10,000 – 30,000 category.
While Aleppo pepper grown outside of Syria may be available from reputable spice merchants, there are also some other chiles sold as Aleppo that are not, in fact, the real deal. If you can’t get it and want to use a substitute, what are your choices?
Amy Scattergood, the food editor of the Los Angeles Times, offers three suggestions:
- Marash pepper from Turkey – smokier and a bit hotter than Aleppo
- Antebi – fruity and milder than Aleppo
- Urfa – darker and smokier, even than Marash
How to use Aleppo or Substitutes?
While these peppers are most identified with Middle Eastern foods, they are great sprinkled on vegetables (like the String Beans and Shallots I’ll share next week) or rubbed into any chicken or fish that you’ll roast or grill. Serious Eats even recommends adding Aleppo to tomato-based foods, such as red sauce or pizza. As with all spices, no matter which one you use, make sure it is fresh.
Do you use Aleppo or one of the substitutes? What’s your favorite recipe that uses these exotic spices?