Hot Peppers in the Greek Kitchen
Hot peppers have been a part of the culinary culture of Greece for about four hundred years. Until a generation or two ago, Central Macedonia was the center for pepper cultivation, specifically around the area of Aridea. Connoisseurs say that Aridea once rivalled Hungary for the quality of its sweet and hot peppers. Unfortunately, very little red pepper is produced there nowadays, as more profitable farming has obliterated so many older crops. But in places like Georgia, southern Turkey, and Syria, there is a thriving pepper pot.
The pepper is a New World crop. Its name has been the source of some confusion for a long time, ever since Columbus set out on his fateful voyages and changed the way Europeans eat. When he first arrived in the western hemisphere, he thought he had reached the East Indies and he called the people he encountered, Indians. Since he was looking for the spicy black pepper, which was extremely valuable and rare in 15th century Europe, he stretched the truth by naming the hot-spicy capsicum berries he encountered, pimientos. The Indians, however, called them chilli after the Nahutl, Mexican term for them. Upon his return to Spain, he continued to call them pimientos. Other Europeans perpetuated the linguistic error by calling hot peppers, after the word for pepper in their own tongues. So, today, we have the Greek piperi and piperia, the Italian pepperoni, the Swedish peppar and so on. In English, pepper refers both to black pepper, "Piper nigrum" and to the spicy red peppers, Capsicum.
Capsicum peppers reached Western Europe via Spain from the New World. As for their presence in Eastern Europe and especially in the Balkans, where they took root so well, there are two theories. According to some sources, they arrived via the Jews, escaping the Spanish Inquisition in the late 15th century. The timing is tight, though, since Columbus and his legions were arriving back in Spain, just around the time that the Inquisition was forcing the Jews to flee. The other likely theory is that they arrived in the Balkans via the Turks. When the Turks invaded northern India, they besieged the Portuguese colony of Diu, near Calcutta, and brought back calcut peppers -capsicums- which the Portuguese had got from the Spanish. These, eventually, traveled north with the Turkish legions and spread all over their conquered lands.
The red peppers of the genus Capsicum grow so well in the eastern and southern Mediterranean, that certain cities have become famous for them: Nabeul in Tunisia, Maras and Urfa in Turkey, Aleppo in Syria, Mingrelia in Georgia, and, our own Aridea, as mentioned above. Not all Capsicum peppers are hot, though. Greece also claims one of the most delicious varieties of sweet red pepper, the Florina, esteemed for its thick skin and its sweet flavor.
In the Eastern Mediterranean, one of the most common culinary uses of red peppers, both sweet and hot, is to turn them into savory pastes. In Macedonia, local cooks make a kind of relish out of finely chopped red peppers, tomatoes and spices, and they often add it to rich meat stews or enjoy it, as a dip with bread. In Turkey, Syria, and Georgia, red peppers are pulverized into thick pastes which are used to season all sorts of dishes, from seafood to meat to grains. Usually, these pastes involve cleaning the peppers, drying them, and then processing them to a thick paste. Sometimes, the peppers are pulverized raw and the paste kept under a cap of olive oil. At least one preparation exists for fresh pepper paste, too, from Georgia, where hot green peppers are chopped with a combination of spices and herbs, coriander and mint.
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