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Mint And Paprika Make A Lovely Couple

We all get into habits of taste, whether because of culture, personal preference or the idiosyncrasies of whoever taught us to cook. Why do we put lemon or milk in our tea, but never both? Why is it always mustard or mayo? These are the sort of thoughts I was having the first time I used mint and paprika in the same dish.

For me, mint had always been the cool bachelor uncle of the herb family — the one that lent its icy wit to mint chip ice cream, whose lofty aroma could turn a bourbon into a julep or give fruit salads a sweet and lively bite. As spearmint, I found it bracing and wintry, as peppermint, nimble and teasing. Dried, it made a soothing tea, the nip of menthol tamed to a numbing tingle that worked equally well served hot or cold.

Paprika was the inscrutable maiden aunt, that dusty red powder derived — who knows how? — from a bell pepper. For years, my only use for paprika was to dust it over a roast chicken, which, like a rouge or bronzer, I felt, gave it a lovely color. As far as taste, it might as well have been a cosmetic, because I couldn't have told you what difference it made. Later I used it in salad dressings, but still more as a color than a flavor. Like the mysterious "red matter" in the new Star Trek movie, the paprika I knew was enigmatic, unexamined and served mostly to advance the plot.

Eventually, I got hold of some real sweet paprika rather than the faded red dust of my youth, and I learned to love its gentle, earthy warmth for its own sake. Along with its hot and smoked siblings, I found I liked it on roast vegetables and in chili.

But never in my long, slow, spice-cabinet learning curve did I dream that mint and paprika might go together. One might be a sweet herb, the other a sweet vegetable, but there the kinship ended. If the sweetness of mint was crisp and cool, the sweetness of paprika was a soft glow of heat — their existence, diametrically opposed. Somewhere far beneath the Earth, I liked to muse, paprika and mint could be locked in eternal combat, determining whether the universe belongs to the forces of cool or warm.

It would have been different if I'd had even the most basic familiarity with Turkish cuisine, where paprika and mint join in a dance at least 300 years old. Mint is a Mediterranean native, weedy and ubiquitous; the chili peppers used to make paprika showed up after Columbus and made themselves right at home. As was the case with that more famous Old World-New World pair, basil and tomatoes, it was a match just waiting to happen.

And if it was to happen anywhere, it was bound to happen in Turkey, whose strategic position as a terminus of the Silk Road made it an inevitable, tumultuous melting pot for the flavors of many empires.

Alone, mint is piercing and paprika rounded. Together, their sweetness converges into something completely different from either — an herbal, fruity wake-up call, confused and aromatic; cool on the sides of the tongue and warm at the tip. It's a strangely addicting hybrid that tastes equally of the pasture and the garden.

You can sample that constellation of taste in many versions of the traditional Turkish red lentil soup (ezo gelin corbasi or mercimek corbasi). The paprika and the mint (dried and flaky) get swirled together in butter, their blended flavor lifting and brightening the rustic soup. It's the dried mint, with its intense, herbal zing, rather than the fresh mint, that you want here. McCormick markets it as "mint flakes," but you can find it in bulk at natural food stores. I suspect you could even just tear open a packet of mint tea.

I fell hard for the same seasoned butter draped over manti, the Turkish lamb dumplings with garlicky yogurt. In fact, once the dumplings were gone, I just kept on going — spooning buttered, herbed, spiced yogurt into my mouth without even the dieter's pretense of remorse.

Along the same lines, a yogurt marinade is good for conveying mint and paprika deep into chicken, there to await the fiery blast of the grill. Or you can sprinkle the two together onto sauteed potatoes, or mix them into a skillet of wilted greens and ground beef or lamb.

The whole experience has caused me to cast a probing, evaluative eye on the wooden cabinet in the corner of the kitchen. What other couples have come to a secret understanding in that dark, aromatic niche? Could the oregano be having a fling with the Aleppo pepper? The thyme and the mace? Is the fennel consorting with the sumac?

I'd like to demonstrate the kind of abandon my son does when he makes salad dressing (his last one included cinnamon and grains of paradise, a medieval spice), but I usually end up doing the same old sums on the spice abacus: nutmeg plus allspice, cumin plus coriander. It will probably take more than one ancient civilization to bring about real change in my herbal calculus. Until then, I'll remain just one more traveler on the spice road.

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T. Susan Chang
T. Susan Chang regularly writes about food and reviews cookbooks for The Boston Globe, and the Washington Post. She's the author of A Spoonful of Promises: Recipes and Stories From a Well-Tempered Table (2011). She lives in western Massachusetts, where she also teaches food writing at Bay Path College and Smith College. She blogs at Cookbooks for Dinner.