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The sensuality of the spice Urfa Biber from Türkiye

Make magic in the kitchen—and in your relationship—with a sweet-smokey Turkish spice

 Turkish roasted vegetables in herb and yogurt sauces. (Photo: Samar Harlarnkar)
Turkish roasted vegetables in herb and yogurt sauces. (Photo: Samar Harlarnkar)

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Last week was the first time I made the acquaintance of one Urfa Biber. I was blown away by the smokiness, the sweetness—all combined in one sensual package.

Chillies have always had considerable effect on me and there is nothing better than variety to keep the magic going in the relationship. That variety in my culinary life is not of my doing—I never shop for food or spices when I travel—but due to the generosity of others. In this case, the Urfa biber, among other spices, came from my cousin Gitu, who was thoughtful enough to shop for spices during a recent sojourn in Turkey, or Türkiye, as it is now known.

Türkiye, as we all know, has been hit by devastating earthquakes, with thousands dead. Even so, the devastation is limited to the country’s northern areas and there is a strong argument to be made to spend money in a disaster-hit nation that can use all the money it gets.

There was, she reported, no evidence of disrupted life in the areas she travelled to, including Cappadocia and Istanbul. There were tourists everywhere, large numbers from Central Asia and Eastern Europe, and since it was not high season, queues to visit the tourist attractions were absent. India wasn’t very well known, she said, but “Hindistan” certainly was.

Like me, my cousin is not inclined to seek out desi food when abroad, certainly not in a country like Türkiye, with a famed cuisine given to freshness and—by our standards—minimal spices, or spices that do not generate the kind of heat we often cannot do without.

She abandoned fish and chicken and ate, she reported, only meat. She told me how a small eatery near the Hagia Sophia mosque offered only two kinds of lamb, the limited choice obviously driven by supreme confidence in what they made. Meat in Türkiye is supposedly of high quality and subtly spiced, to let its natural taste come through.

But, of course, I wanted to be counter-intuitive. So, I thought, why not use the Urfa biber with vegetables rather than meat? I was due to make dinner anyway that night, so this was just much easier. As for the meat, we requested my mother to send us nati, or country chicken lapped in strong south Indian spices. That took care of protein.

I made limited use of the Urfa biber, using it with one of the sauces that went into the vegetables, as you can read below. The vegetables themselves were basic—roasted with olive oil, sumac and salt. But the Turkish sauces appeared intriguing and the taste lived up to the promise.

“Is that pesto?” our picky pre-teen asked. The bright green sauce, made with fresh dill, parsley and mint, green chilli and Urfa biber, was tangy and tart and did look a bit like pesto. She liked it anyway. The photo alongside does not do it justice. It was a bright green, but try as I might, I could not get the colour to register in the photo, possibly something to do with the fact that it was night and I was shooting under a single, dim lamp. Kindly adjust and take my word for it.

Turkish roasted vegetables in herb and yogurt sauces. (Photo; Samar Harlarnkar)
Turkish roasted vegetables in herb and yogurt sauces. (Photo; Samar Harlarnkar)

Since we are used to eating roasted vegetables without sauces, I was hesitant to lap them in both sauces. But when I did, they blended easily and beautifully, the fresh herbs merging into the smooth yogurt. I could imagine how these sauces might work with lamb kebabs.

A day later, I was making my famous pork—a mélange of Khasi black sesame and ginger and Sirarakhong chillies from Ukhrul, Manipur—and randomly added in the Urfa biber as well. How did that turn out? It’s cooking as I write this, so we will have to leave that in suspense. You could, of course, log in to my Instagram account and see what happened.

Turkish roasted vegetables in herb and yogurt sauces

This dish is easy to make but it is best to prepare methodically. First make both the sauces, then roast the vegetables and then bring it all home.
Serves 4

Parsley and dill sauce
Half a cup parsley
Half a cup dill
3 tbsp mint
2 green chillies, deseeded
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp Urfa biber chilli powder (if not, substitute with other chilli powder)
5-7 tbsp olive oil
Juice of half a lime
Salt to taste

Place all the ingredients in a food processor and reduce to a smooth paste. Set aside.

Yogurt and pepper sauce
200g Greek yogurt
1 tsp fresh pepper powder
5 garlic cloves, finely chopped
Juice of half a lime
3 tbsp fresh mint, finely chopped

Mix all the ingredients, whisk until smooth and set aside.

Roasted vegetables
4 large carrots, cut like fries
2 sweet potatoes, cut like fries
12 shallot or sambar onions
3 tomatoes, quartered
1 green or yellow capsicum
(You can also add zucchini, cut round in 2mm slices)
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp sumac
Salt to taste


Mix vegetables with oil, sumac and salt. Place on a baking tray and roast potato, carrots and onions at 200 degrees Celsius for 30 minutes, turning over once. Add tomatoes, capsicum (and zucchini, f using), add a dash of oil, mix with other vegetables and roast for another 20 minutes. Remove when done and bring to room temperature. In a large dish, spread the yogurt sauce. Pile the vegetables atop it. Put dollops of the parsley and dill sauce. Mix vegetables with both sauces. Serve with soft bread.

Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures. @samar11 on Twitter.

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