Recipe: Spicy Bulgur Pilaf with Tomatoes, Red Pepper Paste and Mint

Spicy bulgur pilaf, from a recipe by Selin Rozanes, is vibrant with the flavors of Turkish red pepper paste and a host of spices, including cumin, black pepper and sumac.

Spicy bulgur pilaf, from a recipe by Selin Rozanes, is vibrant with the flavors of Turkish red pepper paste and a host of spices, including cumin, black pepper and sumac.

It felt just like Istanbul yesterday: Forty-nine degrees, angry clouds and spurts of cold rain.

Of course there were no minarets. No way to sit at a teahouse overlooking the steely Bosphorus, warming my chilled hands on a glass of hot cay.

It would have been an excellent day to go to the hamam—if only my bath had a warm bench to lie on and a corpulent masseuse to scour my hide with olive oil soap and a rough mitt until it glowed.

No matter. Instead I made sehriyeli bulgur pilavi, the spicy bulgur pilaf that I first tasted in Selin’s kitchen a few weeks ago. Its enticing aromas filled the kitchen, lightening the gloom, while the vibrant flavors of Turkish red pepper paste and other spices made Saturday supper a lively affair.

When I returned from Istanbul, I had a few things tucked into my suitcase, among them the bulgur which is needed for this recipe. Its uncracked oval grains most closely resemble the “whole, unpeeled wheat” which I found in our local Greek market. There is a difference in the color, however: The wheat here is pale and creamy, while the bulgur sold in Turkish markets is the color of saffron.

Since the plump, chewy grains contribute immeasurably to the pleasure of this dish, it is well worth seeking out the right bulgur. Do not use cracked wheat, which normally comes in grinds from fine to coarse. Instead search your local Mediterranean or Middle Eastern market for whole grains, or check out the grain section at www.tulumba.com, a good web resource for all things Turkish.

At Istanbul’s Kadikoy market, I saw barrels of whole, golden bulgur mixed with bits of uncooked vermicelli and that is what Selin used in this recipe. To make your own, simply sauté a little broken vermicelli in butter and add it to the pot.

The other key ingredient I brought home—OK, one of the others—was freshly made tatli biber salcasi, or sweet red pepper paste. I am convinced that fresh pepper paste is one secret of delicious Turkish cooking. It is certainly a flavor that ex-pat Turks crave. My friend Demir, a Durham rug merchant who was born in Istanbul, described in the most tragic tones the way that Turkish security confiscated 2 kilos of “the most incredible red pepper paste” as he was exiting the country. “I had to watch as the guy dumped it into the trash can,” he said mournfully. “’Please, at least take it home,’ I said, but he couldn’t do it.”

Lesson #1: Stash red pepper paste and other suspicious delectables in your checked luggage, preferably amongst dirty laundry.

The paste is quite simple—usually only salt, olive oil and occasionally lemon juice are added—so the sun-warmed ripe red peppers grown in southeastern Turkey are the all-important ingredient. The heat of the peppers varies, however. At Kordon, a white tablecloth fish restaurant on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, I had a violent coughing fit after eating an enormous spoonful of incendiary paste that accompanied an array of delectable cold mezze or starters. The aromatic paste I bought at the Kadikoy market, on the other hand, is remarkable for the rich fruity flavors of the sweet red peppers with which it was made. It is quite salty, but lacks any real heat.

When making the bulgur pilaf, Selin stirred a spoonful of vibrant pepper paste from Antakya—fruity and slightly spicy—into the tomato-onion mixture; although there are many spices in the dish, it is the pepper paste that burnishes the grains and pulls all the flavors together. In a pinch you can substitute tomato paste, but as with the bulgur, it is worth seeking out the real thing. Try your local Middle Eastern market, or check out the array of pepper pastes at Tulumba.com.

And pick up some Marash biber or other flaky Turkish red pepper while you’re at it. It has a more mellow flavor than ordinary red pepper flakes and will lend an authentic taste to the pilaf. And get some sumac if you don’t already have it: that’s the dark, purplish berry with a sour flavor that’s used, finely ground, in cooking in Turkey and the Middle East.

Above all, do not skip the last step in Selin’s recipe. After the bulgur is done, remove it from the heat. Place a clean dishtowel between the pot and the lid, and let it sit for 10 minutes before serving. During that time, the grains plump up, excess moisture disappears, and the flavors blossom. The pilaf emerges from the pot, its tender and slightly chewy grains infused with the subtle taste and aroma of Turkish peppers and other spices.

It’s a magic act.

Is that the sun peeking through the clouds?
Selin’s Spicy Bulgur Pilaf with Tomatoes, Red Pepper Paste and Dried Mint

(This recipe has been adapted from Selin Rozanes at www.turkishflavours.com.)

Serves 4 as a side dish


¼ cup uncooked vermicelli, broken into ½-inch lengths
1 tablespoon butter
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, diced
1 or 2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon Turkish red pepper paste, or tomato paste
2 medium tomatoes, cored and diced
1-1/2 cups water
1 cup whole bulgur
1 teaspoon Marash biber, or other red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground
1 teaspoon sumac, ground
1 teaspoon cumin, freshly ground
1 teaspoon dried mint, or 1 tablespoon fresh mint, finely chopped
½ teaspoon salt, or to taste
Chopped flat-leaf parsley for garnish, if desired


1. In a medium saucepan, heat the butter over a medium flame. Add the uncooked, broken vermicelli and sauté, stirring continuously, until it changes color. Lower the heat if necessary—do not let the vermicelli burn. When lightly browned, remove vermicelli from the heat, scrape it onto a small plate and set aside.
2. In a medium sized pot, heat the olive oil over a medium flame. Add the onion and garlic and sauté for 4 to 5 minutes until the vegetables have softened. Do not let them brown.
3. Add the spoonful of red pepper or tomato paste and stir for 1 minute, blending it with the onion-garlic mixture.
4. Add the tomatoes and sauté, stirring, for an additional 4 to 5 minutes until they are cooked through.
5. Pour in the water and add the bulgur, browned vermicelli, red pepper flakes, black pepper, sumac, cumin, mint and salt to the pot. Stir well. Bring to a gentle boil, then immediately reduce the flame to its lowest setting and cover the pot. Let the bulgur simmer until all the water is absorbed, about 15 minutes. Stir occasionally while cooking to keep the grains from sticking together. (If the bulgur is not sufficiently cooked at the end of 15 minutes, add another ¼ cup water and continue to simmer, covered.)
6. When all the water has been absorbed, remove the pot from the heat. Place a clean dishtowel between the pot and the lid. Let the bulgur sit for 5 to 10 minutes before serving. Sprinkle with chopped parsley if desired.

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