Syrian Red Pepper Dip (Muhammarah)
Bah dah dah dah. Muhammarah!
So this is one of my favourite Middle-Eastern mezze dishes, and incidentally was my debut dish on MasterChef. I served it with mini 'kaak', a sort of Middle-Eastern flatbread flavoured with sesame, and a tomato salad with preserved lemon & mint.
Muhammarah comes from Syria, but it is enjoyed all over the Levantine region: Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Turkey. I first enjoyed it a few years ago in a Syrian commune in the town of Anjar, which sits on the Syria's border with Lebanon. I brought it's addictive, tingling heat back home with me and have been making it throughout summer ever since. It's an excellent side to serve with drinks, along with some toasted pita or sesame breadsticks for dipping and swiping. It's sublime as a starter before or even with a fresh salad, such as Lebanese Fattoush. The heat somehow makes you more receptive to fresh, vegetable flavours.
The word 'muhammarah' is a coinage of two Arabic words: 'muhammar' - 'to blacken' and 'hammarah' - 'red'. The essence of it is a red pepper dip, made with roasted and charred red peppers, pounded with Syrian Aleppo chilli, toasted walnuts, fresh lemon and tangy pomegranate molasses. It is sweet, smoky, tangy and hot - a dazzling band of flavours that tingle your palate in symphony.
It's extremely nutritious and charged with heat. The sort of heat you get from muhammarah is multi-dimensional and it develops and transforms as and after you eat it. What creates such a rollercoaster of heat is the Aleppo Pepper; it is a Syrian chilli pepper from the city of Aleppo. Unfortunately it is virtually impossible to get ahold of Aleppo pepper sourced from Syria. Most Aleppo pepper is cultivated in Turkey these days, where you can find it named 'pul biber'. I've yet to come across it in a shop, but you can buy it online pretty cheaply. I strongly advise it if you're a chilli buff. It is pretty mild for a chilli, and has a tangy-sweet, lemon-zesty, fruity aroma.
So here's the low-down on how to make this fiery dish, it makes a robust packed lunch:
- 3 red Bell Peppers
- 2 cloves Garlic
- handful of dry Crackers or 1 or 2 slices of toasted bread
- 1 tablespoon Pomegranate Molasses
- 1 tablespoon fresh Lemon Juice
- 1 teaspoon tomato paste
- 2-3 tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- 1 tablespoon of Aleppo Chilli Pepper
- 100g of Walnuts, toasted
- Salt & Pepper to taste
- Cut each bell pepper into 3-4 large chunks. Place face-down on a foil-lined baking tray, skin facing upwards and set under a hot grill or into a hot oven (200C). Grill them for approximately 5-10 minutes until the skins are wrinkled and showing blackened blisters. Remove from the oven/grill and allow to cool slightly.
- While the peppers are cooling, heat a small frying pan and tumble in 100g of walnuts. Do not add any oil, simply dry fry the walnuts on a medium heat until they smell toasty and bear a few blackened freckles.
- Slither the roasted peppers into a food processor. Add in the toasted walnuts along with 2 cloves of garlic, lemon juice, Aleppo chilli pepper, tomato paste, pomegranate molasses and salt & pepper and gently pulse into a roughened paste.
- Crumble in a handful of dry crackers or dry toasted bread. This will soak up any excess liquid and thicken the muhammarah to a spreadable consistency. Pulse in the processor until well-incorporated.
- Drizzle in extra virgin olive oil gradually until the muhammarah looks desirably smooth and glossy.
- Serve immediately - though it tastes better the next day and moreso the day after. Eat with toasted pitta breads, crackers, olives. It's absolutely glorious when eaten with creamy labneh cheese to tame the flames! It will last 5-7 days when refrigerated.