In the early ’70s my folks would travel from the Bronx all the way to Shimon’s in Kew Garden Hills to get pizza on Saturday nights. Shimon, the owner, was a Yemenite Jew who would endearingly refer to his homemade charif or schug as d’vash (honey). For him, these spicy, pepper-based condiments were just perfect, neither too bland nor too hot. Honey, though? I think not.
Peppers are the fundamental spice in many cuisines, whether sweet paprika in eastern European cuisines or the more fiery kind used in Middle Eastern and Asian cookery. There are several spices, however, that are called pepper but are actually related to a different family.
Black pepper is not a pepper. Standard peppers are from the capsicum family, while black pepper—or piper nigrum—is the fruit of the flowering vine called piperaceae and is most closely related to other Asian species. Black pepper is native to southeast India and is extensively cultivated there and in similar tropical regions. Vietnam is currently the world’s largest black pepper producer.
Returning to actual pepper varieties, there is the classic bell pepper, the Holland pepper and others. Although fairly similar, Holland peppers are hothouse grown with proper sun and humidity, yielding extremely beautiful, thick and bright-colored peppers that are optimal for crudités and beautiful presentations. Bell peppers are usually thinner and gnarlier in shape. These are great in cooking and in diced salads.
Latin American and Mexican cuisine heavily rely on an assorted variety of chili peppers in their cuisine. Jalapenos are often diced into salad, sliced or eaten whole. Chipotles are actually smoked red jalapenos and are often turned to powder form or, alternatively, canned in adobo sauce. They can be used in a variety of sauces. Poblanos are usually fire charred, peeled and stuffed with a meat. Many candies from Mexico contain spices such as cayenne pepper, as even schoolchildren enjoy this fiery treat.
Hungarians absolutely treasure their many varieties of peppers. They fondly call all pepper varieties paprikash, and even have a dish with that name. They produce paprika in many hues, varying from yellow to maroon to orange, as well as different spice levels.
In American cuisine, we utilize tons of hot sauce for buffalo wings, or add a splash of tabasco to give some heat to our food. Sriracha sauce is an alternative to ketchup on practically everything. Hot sauce is slightly more mild and flavorful. Tabasco is vinegary, producing an immediate punch of heat, and masks flavors extremely well. Unlike American vinegar-based hot sauces, sriracha is pepper-based with a pinch of vinegar to facilitate the pickling or fermentation process.
In North African and Israeli cuisine, there are foods such as matbucha, shakshuka and Moroccan fish that are all heavily pepper-based. Harissa is a North African pepper condiment containing different types of roasted peppers, garlic paste spices and olive oil. This is often used as an ingredient in matbucha. Schug or charif is a Yemeni hot pepper condiment very similar to harissa and can be made from green or red peppers. But it definitely doesn’t taste like honey.
- 1 large or 3 small onions diced into very small cubes
- 3 large green and 3 large red bell peppers diced into very small cubes
- 20-22 cloves garlic sliced paper thin
- 1 6-oz. can tomato paste
- 1 28-oz. can diced tomatoes, including liquid
- ½ cup olive or regular oil
- 2 tbsp. plus 2 tsp chicken base (consommé)
- 2 tbsp. plus 2 tsp sugar
- 3 ½ cups water
- 1 tbsp. cumin
- 1 tsp black pepper
- Cayenne pepper to taste
In a pot, sweat onions in oil on medium high heat till translucent. Add garlic and stir for an additional minute. Add all other ingredients, bring to boil, then lower flame to as low as possible and let simmer for approximately four hours.
For shakshuka, take this finished sauce, place a liberal amount in a sauté pan and bring to boil. Crack the desired number of eggs into the pan. Cover with a lid and cook to desired runniness.
For Moroccan fish, place the desired amount of salmon or any white-fleshed fish fillets in a pan and cover with sauce. Add chopped cilantro. Cover with foil and bake at 350 for about 20-25 minutes.
The heat content in peppers is measured in scoville units, much like energy is measured in BTUs or British thermal units.
The word pepper originates from the Hebrew word pilpul. In many languages Ls and Rs are interchangeable.
Falafel is also derived from the word pilpul as it is a well-seasoned savory treat.
Matbucha originates from the Hebrew word zevach, which in Arabic and Aramaic is pronounced tavach as the Hebrew letters tes and dalit are interchangeable. This word means to butcher or sacrifice. In Semitic languages such as Aramaic, Arabic and modern-day Hebrew, the word tabach means cook or kitchen. Hence, matbucha gets its name because it is a cooked salad.
Shakshuka means mixed up in many North African Arab dialects. It stems from the Berber word for ragout (chunky sauce). This term is used much like we use the word chulent to depict a mish mosh.
Pimiento is the Spanish name for peppers.
There is a commentary on Talmud known as the pilpula charifta, or hot pepper.
The reason spicy foods can be so addictive is because they release endorphins or happy feelings.
Chilis cause one to sweat, which in turn has a cooling effect. This is why, ironically, countries with the hottest climates, such as Mexico, India, the Caribbean Islands, the Middle East and so on, consume the most chilis.
Pilpul chaverim (literally, pepper of friends) is a term used in yeshivot in regard to the fiery and heated, yet friendly, way in which students learn Torah.
By Naphtali Sobel