Peppers first arrived from the New World in the port of Naples, then a Spanish city, in the early 16th century. They were spread around the Mediterranean by so-called Turkish merchants, mostly Sephardic Jews, who sold the seeds as they sold spices. Eventually, Jews who had migrated south to North Africa to escape the Inquisition in Spain began adding them to the colorful potpourri of salads served as a first course at Friday night dinners, mostly followed by meat or fish couscous and fresh fruit for dessert. In those days before freezers and canning, a way of preserving the peppers was to cook and marinate them in olive oil with garlic and lemon juice.
North African Jews were not the only ones who did this. Turkish merchants also brought peppers to the Danube Valley of Bulgaria and Hungary, where they were, and still are, preserved and bottled for our consumption.
Whenever red peppers are on sale, I love to make red pepper salad. I learned this recipe many years ago from an Algerian cook when I lived in Jerusalem and still make it for Sabbath dinners or throughout the week, sometimes combined with omelets, pasta dishes, or other salads.
Joan Nathan is Tablet Magazine’s food columnist and the author of 10 cookbooks including King Solomon’s Table: a Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World.