How the Syrian Conflict Affects Your Spice Rack

There’s an awesome restaurant across the street from my office at MIT.

It’s called Clover Food Lab; it started as a food truck and now has locations around Cambridge. It’s vegetarian and innovation-focused and scrupulous about its sourcing and its waste footprint, and the food is uniquely delicious. I must eat there several times each week. (This week they have a pimento cheese sandwich that incorporates capers, house-brined celery, and slabs of seedless cucumber. You should go.)

When I’m not at MIT, I keep up with Clover via their blog, which features thoughtful, short essays on asparagus, greenhouses, and coffee robots. Mostly they make me smile, but recently their founder Ayr Muir put up a post that made me think.

“Chris brought us a challenge at our recent food dev meeting. Turns out that the Aleppo pepper we’ve been loving for years is no longer available. The conflict in Syria has destroyed the Aleppo pepper production… We’re exploring alternatives, but the most likely outcome is that we stop using Aleppo pepper for now.”

This brought me up short because, of all the spices I have stashed in my cupboards, Aleppo is one of my favorites. It’s a dried chile, crushed but not ground, and sold with most of the seeds sifted out: cherry-red, mellow and medium-hot, lightly salty and oily with a whiff of wine and smoke. The name adds to its appeal: Aleppo in Syria is one of the world’s oldest cities, a treasure-house of architecture and Islamic history, a terminus of the fabled Silk Road.

And now it is threatened with ruin. Syria is in chaos from three years of civil war—making more than 2 million Syrians refugees—and Aleppo is a battleground. Ten days ago, either one side or the other destroyed the city’s water supply.

With 100,000 dead and grave diseases such as polio spreading in the turmoil, the loss of a spice might seem a small matter. But the peppers of northern Syria are not just a flavor; they are a heritage.

I asked some of the top spice importers in the United States what they knew about the supply of Aleppo. What they told me revealed how quickly a name can become divorced from a place and people. At Penzeys, a nationwide chain headquartered in Wisconsin, Margie Gibbons told me their Aleppo is grown and processed just across the Syrian border, in Turkey. Ana Sortun, a James Beard Award-winning chef whose three restaurants focus on food from the eastern Mediterranean, used to import her own Aleppo from Syria for her kitchens and retail spice blends.

Townsmen and nomads bring goods to sell and trade at a weekly bazaar in Aleppo, Syria, 1946. Photograph by Maynard Owen Williams

Townsmen and nomads bring goods to sell and trade at a weekly bazaar in Aleppo, Syria, 1946. Photograph by Maynard Owen Williams

War Destroys a City and a Pepper

“We bought it as long as we could, but the supplies dried up,” she said by phone. Now she uses a pepper grown in the neighboring Turkish province of Kahramanmaras, called Maras for short. “We didn’t change the name we use,” she said. “People recognize Aleppo, but no one knows what Maras is.”

Tom Erd, the proprietor of The Spice House in Milwaukee and a loquacious and expert spice geek, filled in the details for me.

“We started carrying Aleppo about 10 years ago,” he said by phone. “They always came in labeled ‘Product of Syria.” But just in the past two years, they say: ‘Aleppo-style Mediterranean chilies.’”

Distinguishing the Turkish peppers as “Maras”—for botanical reasons or nationalist ones—turns out to be tricky. “They’re brother and sister plants, maybe even the same plant,” Erd said. “They’re grown in the same landscape, in the same type of soil, with the same amount of rain. It doesn’t matter to plants what side of the border they’re grown on.”

Photo of Aleppo pepper.

Aleppo pepper (pictured right) is a reddish spice grown in Turkey and Syria. Photograph courtesy of Veganbaking.net

A Business Founded by Pirates

Should it matter to us? Erd, whose family has been in the spice business two generations so far, told me what he’d learned about these peppers. “Columbus brought chilies back to the Old World on his second voyage, and within 60 years they had reached Syria and Turkey,” he said. “Peppers were being farmed there before Hungary began growing paprika. They were fundamental to the Silk Road trade. They’re an essential table condiment still.”

And now they are in dispute and in danger. “Half of the region producing this pepper—the Syrian half—either can’t grow it at all, or if they grow it, can’t move it to sell,” Erd said. “The other half of the region, the Turkish half, is producing and selling, but the quantities are half what they used to be.”

Erd laughed wryly as he recounted how one batch of “Aleppo” turned out to be far hotter than it should have been—and was revealed, when he interrogated his importers, to be Korean peppers that someone had substituted to fill the shortfall. “Our business was founded by pirates,” he said. “And there are still some pirates in it.”

Erd recalled that the world’s most-prized cinnamon used to be Vietnamese, until the Vietnam War disrupted the trade for 30 years and Ceylon, China and Indonesia rushed in to fill the gap. When I look at my dwindling jar of Aleppo, I wonder how long it will be before Syria can claim its spice again—or whether “Aleppo” will become a name without a heritage, as resonant and evocative as the Silk Road, and just as lost to us.

This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.