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We can’t get our fill of Filfil

A garlic-laden hot sauce from the Middle East

October 23, 2014 | Photo courtesy Filfil Foods

Like most Italians, Francesca and Marisa love garlic, but we also know that Mediterranean cuisine doesn’t have a lock on these pungent bulbs. As we learn more about Middle Eastern flavors, 150ish has a growing appreciation for its depth of spice and use of, yes, garlic. And when we tasted Filfil, a garlic-laden hot sauce with incredible depth of flavor, we found a new favorite ingredient—we’d even add it to our Sunday sauce.
 
Here’s the dish. Filfel chuma (or pilpelchuma for you fans of the Jerusalem cookbook by Ottolenghi and Tamimi) means “pepper garlic” in Arabic. It is a paste made from peppers and crushed garlic that originated long ago among Libyan Jews and is now commonly found on kitchen tables and in restaurants across northern Africa and throughout the Middle East.
 
Like most Israelis, Einav Sharon had her own recipe for filfel chuma, and even after settling in Jersey City, she made it for friends for years. One of those friends is Jeff Silva, a San Diego native who was introduced to Einav in 2008, when their cats met while wandering the building hallway. “Jeff loved my filfel chuma, and together we decided to bring it to the world,” Einav says.
 
Their plans took a couple of years to come together and the pair tinkered with the original recipe for about six months before deciding that the seventh version (represented by the No. 7 on the label) was just right—Filfil was born in August 2012.
 
“To bring it to the American palate, it needed some massaging,” Einav says. “Middle Eastern spices are very different—there’s caraway [in the traditional recipe], which is very bitter, and it can be very garlicky. We wanted to have a flavor that would go with many foods that people eat here in the States. We also worked on the consistency—to have something that is smooth and easily squeezed out of a bottle. The original is more chunky, more of a paste.”
 
Not that they skimped on the garlic. According to Jeff, there are about 20 cloves per bottle. And not just any garlic—heirloom, non-GMO garlic from the famed Christopher Ranch in Gilroy, California. “We experimented with many different types of garlic,” Jeff explains. “And we noticed a drastic difference in the quality of the bulbs and their flavor. We also use non-GMO expeller-pressed canola oil, which is difficult to find, but much healthier.”
 
Natural, healthy ingredients are important to the pair, who cite the amount of salt and sugar found in other condiments, especially sriracha chile sauce, to which Filfil is often compared. “We use no sugar, and have only one-percent sodium,” Jeff says.
 
One taste of Filfil and the comparison to any other product disappears. There’s the immediate hit of garlic—good garlic without a trace of bitterness—followed by the heat of the pepper. It has great depth of flavor and pairs well with any number of foods.
 
“We recommend people use it on everything!” Einav laughs. “And that’s what people tell us, too. They love to experiment with it. You can put it on a sandwich or pizza, or spread it on buttered toast or cream cheese. Mix it with mayo for a sandwich spread or a dip for French fries or crudités. It’s great on salads, too. And if you add a squeeze to something that’s cooked, it will give it a boost and highlight the existing flavors. It gives any dish a bolder flavor. Some people add a little honey to it and make a barbecue sauce.” 150ish also loves Filfil mixed with hummus and added to scrambled eggs.
 
There’s also a version No. 6, with a more paste-like consistency, that the pair wholesales to restaurants as a marinade for rotisserie chickens.
 
Filfil has enjoyed great word of mouth publicity, and they even have a fan in Martha Stewart, who chose the product as a finalist in her recent American Made competition. “This is our first experience in selling a food product and we’re not doing a lot of marketing,” Jeff says. “But the product is making its way into the marketplace and we feel very fortunate that it’s going very well.”
 
Although both still work full-time jobs, making and bottling Filfil in the kitchen at Kipsey’s restaurant in Manhattan, they’ve recently hired some helpers and have plans in place for their inevitable expansion. 
 
Visit www.filfilfoods.com, the Martha Stewart American Made collection on eBay, or Ann Marie’s to purchase Filfil No. 7 online. You can also purchase Filfil No. 7 at Urban Market, Fresh and Local, and the Civil Service Café in Brooklyn, and at Kipsey’s in Manhattan.
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