Gourmet Aleppo pepper: a culinary casualty of the Syria war

For Americans following the war in Syria, Aleppo is the dateline of major clashes between the army and rebels. But for those with gourmet tastes, it's also the name of a pepper they'd prefer not do without.

By , Staff writer

American kitchens have pots and pans from France, water from Fiji, out-of-season fruit from the Southern Hemisphere, and spices from exotic places around the world.

But, what happens when there is a conflict somewhere in the world that prevents one of those goods from getting to our well-stocked larders?

In the interconnected world, they can become culinary casualties of war.

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That’s the case with Aleppo pepper, which originates from the region around war-torn Aleppo, Syria. Many spice stores and wholesalers say they can no longer buy the mildly hot pepper.

The disappearance of the chili from many restaurants and shelves illustrates how a conflict thousands of miles away can affect everyday life. On a far larger scale, last summer, President Obama released oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve because the war in Libya was causing prices to run up. During World War II, the US embarked on an effort to create synthetic rubber since the Japanese controlled the natural rubber supply in South East Asia.

“When you have a global economy, what happens anywhere happens everywhere,” says economist Joel Naroff of Naroff Economic Advisors in Holland, Pa.

Mr. Naroff says that the largest impact of war on everyday life was after World War II. Because most of the world’s industrial base had been destroyed, it created a boom in the US, which still had the capacity to produce goods and services.

“We were the only supplier of goods and services for the rest of the decade until the rest of the world rebuilt,” he says. “It laid the foundation for 40 years of strong economic growth.”

In the case of peppers, the effect is far more modest, affecting mainly spice shops and restaurants and a small number of home chefs who enjoy it’s almost smoky flavor.

“It’s been very popular but we don’t have it any longer,” says Linnet Hultin, who runs the retail store and is the spice buyer at Atlantic Spice Co. in North Truro, Mass. “The supplier we used to buy it from no longer carries it.”

In Cambridge, Mass., Oleana, which serves Eastern Mediterranean fare, uses the pepper in place of black pepper on salads and even on a whipped feta dish.

“It helps to lift the flavors,” says chef and owner Ana Sortun, also the author of the cookbook, “Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean.”

Now, she says, cooks can shift over to Maras or Urfa peppers, which come from Turkey near the Syrian border. “The nuances are so slight, you would not notice the difference,” she says.

In fact, the spice retailer Penzeys, based in Milwaukee, Wis., says its supply of Aleppo pepper comes from Turkey. “I’ve been told it’s a region, so we have no trouble with supply,” says Margie Gibbons, a spokeswoman. “It’s my favorite thing in the kitchen.”

However, spice importer Lior Lev Sercarz of La Boite a Epice in New York says the use of Aleppo pepper is reserved to a small part of the American population.

“No one would notice that Aleppo prices have either gone up or if there is no Aleppo,” he says. “You can live without Aleppo.”

He points out that three years ago 80 percent of the nutmeg crop was hurt by the weather. “Did you even hear about it?” he asks.

However, for Aleppo fans, there is no need for complete abstinence if they are willing to search the Internet. Some spice providers purchased larger quantities of the spice as they saw the internal war cranking up. One of those is The Spice House, which says it bought large quantifies in anticipation of a supply problem.

“I just spoke with our distributor last week and was told they’re still sitting pretty on stock, so the conflict hasn’t affected our little business yet,” says Alex Wilkens, store manager at the Evanston, Ill. spice provider. “We only go through a hundred pounds every couple of months so I don’t see a problem, at least for us, in the near future.”

Over the longer term, it might become a larger problem if the war drags on, says Mr. Sercarz. “No one knows how long this war will last and that this year’s harvest is going to be harvested…. We will adjust and improvise.”

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