Grown in the Şanlıurfa region in the south east of Turkey, the isot pepper is a hot spice loved by chefs and foodies around the world.
By Rhiannon J Davies
Photos by Elif Savari Kızıl
As the Istanbul chill settles in and memories of the warm summer sun are too distant to offer any comfort, it’s time to look for other sources for heat. Aside from hot drinks, woolen mittens, and a tender embrace, spicy food provides an excellent opportunity to warm up from the inside out. And isot biber (isot pepper), with its invitingly complex taste that somehow manages to be smoky, sweet, earthy and hot, is just the thing.
Whilst pul biber (dried red pepper flakes) may be the most ubiquitous hot spice in Turkey, it’s isot biber that chefs around the world desire – both for its unusual flavor and its intensity.
What Is isot?
The isot pepper is grown in the Şanlıurfa region in the south east of Turkey and, as such, you may find it called Urfa biber at some stores. When eaten fresh, it is a vibrant ruby red capsicum (like an elongated bell pepper), with an incredibly sweet flavor and quite a subtle heat (a combination that shines in the pickled version – if you’re lucky enough to find it). The dark color that makes it so distinctive comes from the two-part drying process: after being picked they are put to partially dry under the unforgiving summer sun before being tightly packed into sacks, and left to ‘sweat’ overnight. This ensures that the dried flakes retain some of the natural oils of the pepper, never quite drying out fully. The process is repeated for around week, as the color of the dried peppers darkens to a deep burgundy or purple-hued black. They are then ground and salted.
The word isot comes from the Turkish isli ot (smoked weed) and the resulting spice has a smokiness reminiscent of the Mexican chipotle. But unlike its American cousin, this flavor is not the result of a smoking process but instead comes from the natural flavors of the pepper. The earthy taste has been likened to coffee, tobacco, dried fruit, and chocolate – a dark and sultry combination that speaks to us of clandestine meetings around the hearths of dimly lit backrooms. The heat is quite mild at first, but don’t be fooled into eating too much – it gradually builds to a lasting burn that’s hot enough to make your eyes water.
How to use isot
İsot is traditionally used to spice up kebab dishes or flavor vegetable stews, and is sprinkled over lahmacun (crispy mincemeat-topped stone-baked dough) to ramp up the heat. Aside from its traditional uses in Turkish lamb-based dishes, try it on roasted root vegetables, braised meats, pungent cheeses, meze, or tomato-based salads. It also works well when mixed with regular pul biber if you’re looking to create a flavor that packs more of an Istanbul punch. As it gains a following around the world, creative cooks are recognizing its sweet and fruity notes and pairing it with chocolate, vanilla, or ginger in desserts such as brownies, gingerbread, and dried fruit savory compotes.
Where to find it
Look out for the dark purple flakes, often clogged together in clumps (due to the high oil content), but be careful you don’t get it confused with (the much finer) sumac flakes. You’ll see mounds of it it displayed in spice shops known as aktars as well as in the Spice Bazaar and some open markets. There are usually several different varieties, so make sure you taste a pinch first – it has a saltiness which makes it surprisingly palatable on its own – to check whether the heat is to your liking. Store it in a sealed container to preserve its freshness. If you’re not in Turkey you can also order the Urfa pepper online from ottolenghi.co.uk and allspiceonline.com.
- The fiery sensation of chilies is caused by capsaicin, a potent chemical which also triggers the brain to release endorphins, which reduce stress and act as natural painkillers – chilies make you feel good!
- Chili strength is measured in Scoville Heat Units (SHU) – named after American pharmacist, William Scoville, who developed his method in 1912 – which calculates the capsaicin concentration.
- Isot is rated 30,000–50,000 SHU, meaning it is considered a medium heat chili & similar to a jalapeno or cayenne.
- According to the Guinness World Records, the hottest chili is Smokin Ed’s ‘Carolina Reaper,’ which rates around 1,569,300 SHU. We’ll stick to the isot, thank you.