Described as fruity with a pleasant kick, Aleppo chile peppers have been a popular seasoning choice around the world since the days of the Silk Road. But in 2014, it suddenly began disappearing from spice racks, and chefs were having to use substitutes that just didn't compare to the Aleppo's distinctive flavor.
Why is Aleppo pepper disappearing? And why does the fate of a pepper species matter?
The pepper's namesake is the city of Aleppo in Syria, which in 2014 was (and still is) in the midst of a brutal, devastating civil war. The people who grew and distributed peppers were fleeing for their lives, their homes and businesses utterly destroyed, making the harrowing journey to the refugee camps in Turkey and elsewhere. Those who survived the smuggler's boats and the conditions in the camps then began the long process of resettlement, some finding themselves in far-flung places like Canada, India, and here in Richmond, Virginia.
While the terrible suffering of millions and the loss of human life is the worst outcome of the civil war, the extinction of the Aleppo pepper should be mourned, too. A disappearing flavor is not just an inconvenience to chefs; it marks a loss of culture, of history, of people.
However, all is not lost.
Back in April, National Geographic reported on how Harvest Thyme Herb Farm in Staunton, Virginia has been growing the peppers when supplies from Syria began to dry up. They grow them using the same methods once used in Syria in order to replicate the distinctive flavor and taste, then supply them to local restaurants. Similar efforts to preserve the Aleppo pepper are underway in all places Syrians themselves have fled, from Turkey to California.
Here in Richmond, the city's first group of Syrian refugees are settling in to their new lives. It isn't easy, but the roots are beginning to take hold. The children are starting school. New jobs are found, a new language is being learned. The remarkable resilience of both pepper and people after the traumatic process of diaspora and resettlement proves that, against the odds and with the right care and attention, it is possible to thrive once more.