Cooking with Lebanese Pepper Paste

Discover the vivid delights of Lebanese pepper paste with Mamnoon chef Garrett Melkonian
lebanese pepper paste
Mamnoon chef Garrett Melkonian with his key ingredient: Lebanese pepper paste

Mamnoon's chef, Garrett Melkonian, has warm memories of the Lebanese pepper paste his grandmother used in various dishes. “Cooking was her way of giving hugs,” says Melkonian, who grew up among extended family in Los Angeles, cooked for a time at Campton Place in San Francisco and was the executive pastry chef for Tom Douglas restaurants. “She loved spicy foods, but my grandfather didn’t, so she always made him a mild version of whatever she was making.”

That’s part of the beauty of this vivid red paste, which Melkonian uses to season marinades and sauces in many Middle Eastern dishes at the restaurant and in his kitchen at home. Originally created before refrigeration existed to preserve peppers, the paste can go fiery or downright mellow, depending on the ratio of hot and sweet peppers. Get Melkonian's recipe for Lebanese pepper paste marinade here.

How he uses it:
Lebanese pepper paste is the backbone of muhammara, the addictive walnut dip. It also lends subtle heat and a brilliant color to the restaurant’s signature whole-fish dish, samkeh harra. “It’s a quick marinade, adding so much flavor in just a couple of hours,” Melkonian says. When cooking at home, he makes an Armenian version of tabbouleh, adding the bulgur to a mixture of sautéed onions, pepper paste and tomatoes.

Where he gets it:
It’s made in house at Mamnoon (Capitol Hill, 1508 Melrose Ave.; 206.906.9606; from a mix of Fresno chiles and sweet bell peppers seeded, chopped and salted before they’re cooked very slowly.

Where you can buy it:
The prepared paste—in mild, medium or hot pepper—is available at Big John’s PFI (starts at $6.50/20 ounces; Chinatown–International District, 1001 Sixth Ave. S; 206.682.2002; and Goodies Mediterranean Market in Lake City ($3.49/12 ounces; 13721 Lake City Way NE; 206.362.2694;; the latter is one of Melkonian’s favorite places to shop for pantry staples.