The deep red Middle Eastern spice that lifts almost everything it touches.
Welcome to ingredient, where once a month I take a deep dive into some of my favourite seasonal and store cupboard ingredients. This month I’m focusing on sumac, the vibrant, lemony spice Yotam Ottolenghi helped us all fall in love with that I think makes the ultimate secret weapon when it comes to alfresco dining (because, hopefully the rain will stop and we’ll actually get to do some of that this summer!)
For paid subscribers click here for my recipes for Spicy Sumac Cashews, Herby Bread & Sumac Salad, and my Sumac Meringues with Fresh Raspberries, all given a hit of flavour, brightness and acidity with this wonderful spice. To access these recipes, plus all of the recipes from past newsletters, you can upgrade your subscription here.
I’m a British food writer who had only ever cooked in England and France until I moved to Los Angeles when I was nineteen, so obviously I discovered sumac through the medium of Yotam Ottolenghi. I even remember the recipe the first jar of sumac (then, ordered from specialist online store Steenburgs as it had not yet hit supermarket shelves) in our house was ordered for: from the book Jerusalem but now available on the Ottelenghi website, these wonderful Turkey & Courgette Burgers with Spring Onion and Cumin my mum used to make for us to eat out on the patio when we had people over. The sumac with it’s wonderful, lemony, slightly smoky, piquant flavour did not go into the burgers themselves, no, it is what made the accompanying yogurt sauce so special. While it is now widely available, it is still not a spice I think we automatically reach for when trying to add something a little more to a dish, and one I wanted to focus on this month rather than another piece of fresh summer produce (but don’t worry, I’ve got fruit and veg focused newsletters planned right up until September) because I think it brings something to summertime, outdoor eating that we would be hard pressed to find anywhere else.
So what is sumac exactly? Sumac is the dried ground fruit of the sumac plant (well, edible varieties of the sumac plant, some can be poisonous, so be careful if you are interested in trying to harvest some yourself!) It has a tangy, lemony, almost acidic flavour, a deep, deep red colouring and a very strong aroma. Most commonly found in Middle Eastern cuisines, it is most often used to flavour meats and salads. Apparently it is full of antioxidants and has anti-inflammatory purposes too, but I prefer to leave the whole food-as-medicine thing to the experts and stick to how it tastes, and how it can make our food taste.
What I was trying to say when I was I described the flavour of sumac just now is that it is sour, and sour in the best possible way. It provides another layer of acidity on top of the things we usually reach for when we feel something needs a bit more tang: vinegars and citrus fruit. It is when we layer different sources of the flavours we’re craving in our dishes that we achieve real complexity in the kitchen. Acidity is important to balance fatty flavours, richness, sweetness, even heat from spices… see where I’m going here? Sumac is a popular meat seasoning because meat has that fatty richness that needs cutting through, and to salads, because what salad is not lifted by a good bit of astringency? If you’re looking for this in a more practical application, there is a lovely illustrated fold out wheel entitled ‘The World of Acid’ at the start of the acid chapter in Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat to help you decide what acids to add to a dish, separated into an inner wheel (cooking acids), and an outer wheel (garnishing acids). If we are to follow the Africa segment to it’s ultimate conclusion where sumac is happily nestled, we leave ‘Africa’, head into North Africa, take on board that we could be choosing between lemon, lime or date vinegar to cook with, and arrive at preserved lemon, dried fruit, sumac, chermoula, harissa, tomato, olives and pickles as possible, complimentary acidic garnish options.
Considering where to start with this months recipes, I looked at where I’d already been using sumac in my cooking. A cursory search of every recipe I’ve ever published surprised me; aside from the fact I use it in my fattoush (find it in my first cookbook Student Eats) and that I’ve reproduced that Ottolenghi yogurt sauce to adorn a summer evenings dish of Courgette and Potato Fritters, I came up short. Yes I’ve always got it in my spice rack - it is wonderful as a sprinkle to finish off a fancy dish of hummus or labneh for guests to go with with drinks and other nibbles, or as part of a larger spread, and I do sometimes grab it when I’m going Middle Eastern-style without a recipe, but apparently I don’t cook with it as much as I thought I did.
However, when I started looking at places where I collect recipes I want to cook at some point I realised that it really was the perfect candidate for ingredient: recipes where sumac really, really works can be as unexpected as they are predictable, and all of these recipes play into the idea that sumac is a wonderful way to add pleasant, balancing acidity to a dish that you quite possibly did not even know it needed.
My Sumac Spiced Nuts use sumac to really add a layer of acidity and enhance the tang of pomegranate molasses in a sweet, spicy, salty and sour coating for fatty cashews; they’re great to enjoy with drinks on the patio before dinner while you’re waiting for the barbecue to fire up.
I had something of a hybrid between the popular mezze dish of Turkish Sumac Onions and a Panzanella / Fattouch thing, heavy with leftover bread (am I the only one who has a massive freezer ziplock of the stale ends of homemade loaves I can’t make breadcrumbs fast enough to get through?), lots of herbs and lots of big, bold flavours in mind when I came up with my Herby Bread & Sumac Salad. I make this one for lunch, but it also works great as a side dish for some grilled meats or as part of a larger outdoor dining bread. As the idea is to soften the stale bread anyway, it is very forgiving if you need to leave it sitting out for a little while.
And finally, dessert. Sumac Meringue is by no means a new idea, but it is so delicious, and so perfectly narrates what I’ve been trying to get across in this ode to the little tub of sumac in my spice rack I just had to include it. Lemon is usually the go-to acid to balance out a towering pavlova loaded with sweetened cream and sweet fruit balanced in what is essentially a nest of almost pure sugar, but I think sumac, swirled into the meringue before baking, is better. It adds balance, tang, visual excitement, and a certain je ne sais quoi to this British summertime favourite which is worth giving a go the next time you have a few egg whites going spare.
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It utterly and totally blew my mind when I came across this Canadian food blogger’s experience of foraging and harvesting his own sumac back in 2019. The fact I can still remember where to find the article is testament to how it stuck with me! It serves as just yet another reminder of where our food comes from: when was the last time you ever considered the origins and processes behind the last jar you plucked from the spice rack?