Red Dips in the Sunshine

I wanted to write about Romesco sauce, because I like it. I like the colour, the taste, the texture, the ingredients … I like it. I like it as a dip with raw vegetables, dressing roast or grilled vegetables, as an element in a wellness bowl, scooped with a spoon from its dish standing in front of the open fridge.  At least I thought I did, because I thought I knew what it was. But then I looked up some books and I became confused, a lot confused. In the course of being confused, however, I had a fine time looking at recipes for red dips/sauces along both sides of the sunny Mediterranean. From Spain, with Romesco, to Morocco with Slada Felfla, through to the Beber Salcasi of Turkey and Greece and then to the east side of the Mediterranean with Muhammara. Even the chraimeh of Tripoli in Libya was visited (although the fish not sampled). I was not exhaustive and the list above hardly does justice to what is available in all the various countries of the Mediterranean. I just dabbled in confusion till some light emerged.

So, officially, there is no absolute recipe for Romesco. Patience Grey says that ‘the annual romescada at Cambrils, near Tarragona is, in fact, a kind of challenge to fishermen to produce the ‘best’ romesco.’ There is no agreement about its source, but there is a loose agreement about ‘some’ of the central ingredients. Thus Davidson tells us that this Catalan sauce ‘normally’ contains fried bread, garlic, grilled tomatoes, almonds, hazelnuts, paprika, and chilli as well as wine and wine vinegar used to blend the pounded ingredients into a smooth paste. So, that is sorted then. But wait a minute, modern chefs muddy the waters, for instance, when one leaves out the peppers, another the peppers and the bread, and the last has no hazelnuts, chilli powder, and even no acid – no wine or wine vinegar. So when, exactly, is a romesco a romesco. For a comparison, we have to turn to the opposite end of the Med, to ‘the Levant’ and to Muhammara.

Muhammara means red in Arabic and is a hot pepper dip found in Levantine and Turkish cuisines (in western Turkey, muhammara is referred to as acuka). Again, it is versatile, delish and moreish. The principal ingredients are usually fresh or dried peppers, (traditionally the hot Aleppo pepper), ground walnuts, breadcrumbs, and olive oil. It may also contain garlic, salt, acid – usually lemon juice, and sometimes spices (e.g. cumin). It may be garnished with mint leaves.

Source: Ottolenghi’s Muhammara recipe

It shares the same variability as romesco in terms of ingredients, with these varying from recipe to chef to expert to country. Some forego breadcrumbs, lemon juice, spice; others add tomato, onion or smoky paprika. But its main difference from its far neighbour and the one ingredient common to all muhammara is the addition of pomegranate molasses. Without the pomegranate molasses it is a different dish. Not quite a romesco, it is more akin to the fragrant Salada Felfla of Morocco detailed in Claudia Roden’s book Arabesque with its additions of coriander and preserved lemon but without the molasses, breadcrumbs, and walnuts.

So, where does this leave romesco. Well I shall tell you when I get to the very definitive version – I am going to begin the testing and tasting now.

Finally, I leave you with Biber Salcasi, the red pepper paste from the Anatolian area which comes in two varieties, hot (aci biber salcasi) or sweet (tatli biber salcasi) , but which are easiest to make with fewest ingredients – unless you want to make them in the traditional way of 5-6 days of sun drying the peppers.

Biber Salcasi: (source: Persepolis, p199)

  1. Roast 500g red peppers in a hot oven for 20 minutes
  2. Cool slightly in a plastic bag and then remove the skins
  3. Blend with 1 teasp of salt and, for the spicy version, 2 red chillies.
  4. Pop the paste back into the oven for 30 minutes, uncovered, on a very low heat.
  5. Store in a dry airtight jar.