If I could introduce only one staple from Turkish cuisine to the western world, it would be pepper paste. You can add it to dishes as you would tomato sauce, you can spread it on toast as is, or you can make it the superstar ingredient of an appetizer as I did here. Possibilities are only as limited as your affinity for savory food. We will save our plans to make salca the new gochujang for another day. For now, let’s make some acuka (pronounced ah-jew-kaw): a Mediterranean / Middle Eastern variation of red pepper and walnut spread.
Growing up with Sunday breakfast feasts in Turkey, I was never a stranger to acuka— but when I really started paying more attention to it was when an ex-boyfriend prepared it in plastic tupperware and gifted it to me many years ago. Handmade gifts are still my favorite. However, not all of them can bring the same gustatory delights that acuka can.
Varieties of Red Pepper and Walnut Spread (or Acuka, or Çemen, or Muhammara…)
This spread has almost as many varieties (and names) as there are individuals who make it. Each has their own favorite ratio of spices, walnuts, oil, and coarseness. I prefer a whole lot of chunky walnuts and thyme in ours. In case you don’t like walnuts, swap it for a nut that you do like. Almonds, cashews, and even Brazil nuts may work here. However, I haven’t tested the recipe with those alternatives and can’t guarantee the same results.
I like to keep the spices and the walnuts a bit coarse in this recipe. If you can’t bear the thought of biting down on a large cumin seed, keep grinding.
I try to add nuts, especially omega-3 rich walnuts, into my diet as much as possible. Did you know that regularly eating nuts can extend your life by about two years? And that despite their high calorie-to-volume ratio they don’t seem to negatively affect consumers’ weight? This recipe will take care of your daily serving no problem.
Next up, we have a pretty good amount of antioxidants from the pepper paste and the spices. Except for the added sodium from the pepper paste, and the added oil, this recipe scores pretty well on my nutrition radar. If you are optimizing for health, I would recommend to:
- Make sure that the pepper paste you purchase has no added salt, or make your own without.
- Skip the olive oil. Believe me, even though I LOVE olive oil and could probably add it to all my meals with joy— it is not a health food. No added oil is. Having said that, I still do consume large amounts of EVOO since the rest of my diet is quite healthy.
Turkish variation of a red pepper and walnut spread that can be enjoyed on toast or as an appetizer dip. Vegan and gluten-free. It can be made oil-free by omitting the olive oil.
- 1.5 cups crushed or chopped walnuts
- 4 tablespoons pepper paste
- 2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 1 teaspoon coriander seeds
- 1 teaspoon peppercorns (or sub regular black pepper)
- 1 teaspoon thyme
- In a mortar, grind the cumin seeds, coriander seeds, thyme, and peppercorns. When the seeds are as coarse as you prefer, add the olive oil into the mortar for it to absorb more flavor. I left a few larger pieces of seeds since I like some big flavor-bombs here and there, see the photo above for reference.
- In a bowl, mix the pepper paste, crushed walnuts, and olive oil blend. Give it a taste and add more spices if you prefer. Enjoy on toast or as a dip.
- Save it in the fridge in a lidded jar for up to a week. However, if you add olive oil to cover the surface, you can save it for far longer.
- You can substitute tomato paste if you do not have access to pepper paste. It will not be as flavorful, but you can make up for it by adding more spices.
- There is no salt in this recipe since most pepper paste already has added salt.