What Is Muhammara?

Dan Harkins

Some of the most distinctive and lasting recipes come from the simplest, yet most unexpected, ingredients. In the culinary realm of dips and spreads, this includes the crushing of chickpeas for hummus, lentils for dahl, and roasted red peppers for muhammara. This latter dish, originating in Syria many generations ago, is like the others in that it needs a precise blend of special seasonings to make it unique and delicious. What gives this dip its nutty, tart, sweet and spicy-hot demeanor is a medley of ingredients like lemon juice, chopped onion, breadcrumbs, pomegranate syrup, crushed walnuts, chili paste, olive oil and perhaps some cumin.

Some muhammara recipes call for alternatives such as chili peppers.
Some muhammara recipes call for alternatives such as chili peppers.

According to a recipe for muhammara in Garde Manger: The Art and Craft of the Cold Kitchen from the Culinary Institute of America, the city of Aleppo, Syria, is where this dish first appeared. The institute advises cooks to make the dip as many as five days in advance before serving it to allow the flavors to fully meld in the refrigerator. That does not mean it will not be delicious if made just before being eaten, though.

Breadcrumbs are one ingredient used to make muhammara.
Breadcrumbs are one ingredient used to make muhammara.

Acquiring the ingredients for this recipe may be difficult or easy, depending on where the cook lives. Most are standard grocery items, but not the red chili paste and pomegranate molasses that give this dip its flavor. The red chili paste is a fairly widespread item, but can be replaced with another spice builder like jalapeno or mashed chili peppers. if the molasses cannot be bought for muhammara, some chefs will make it themselves through mashing and blending pieces of pomegranate into simmering water with copious amounts of sugar until it is fully caramelized and thickened.

The process for making muhammara requires some precision. Exact proportions are needed for the proper final consistency. For the CIA recipe mentioned above, 1 lb. (nearly 700 g) of red peppers will need about 1.5 oz. (about 43 g) of walnuts, 2 oz. (about 60 ml) of lemon juice, 1 tbsp. (about 15 ml) of olive oil, 0.25 tsp. (about 1 g) or red chili paste, 0.5 oz. (about 14 g) of breadcrumbs, 1 oz. (about 28 g) of pomegranate molasses and 0.25 tsp. (about 0.5 g) of cumin. Some also add several sauteed chopped onions to the mix.

First, the walnuts are toasted and crushed with a mortar and pestle. Then they are blended with the breadcrumbs. The peppers are roasted, then peeled, seeded and pureed with everything else into a fully blended dip. After cooling, mahammara is regularly garnished with more olive oil, fresh herbs, more cumin and perhaps some whole walnuts. Some spread it over pita or scoop it away with pita chips.

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