Check Out This Mind-Blowing Spice

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Why you should care

Because there’s more to Middle Eastern cuisine than cloves and cardamom.

If you want to assess people’s culinary skills, start by checking out their racks — their spice racks, that is. Nothing says “gastronome” like a wide variety of spices. A quick look should be enough to identify the type of food they’re into. Basil? Italian. Turmeric and coriander? Indian. Just salt and pepper? Takeout.

Lovers of Arabian cuisine are likely to have copious amounts of cardamom, cumin and cloves. Yet many still miss this lesser-known, flavor-packed spice: sumac. It’s made from the berries of the sumac bush — native to the Middle East — which are dried, peeled and ground into a deep red, purplish powder that tastes fruity but sour. Most of it is produced in Turkey, and it’s used widely from Jordan to Iran in everything from meat marinades to salad dressings or just for a final touch of color. A proud Mediterranean foodie, even I was intrigued when I first saw the purple powder covering my hummus in a restaurant in Amman, Jordan.

Its unique tang goes surprisingly well with everything from chicken to lamb, and it can be used as a zesty substitute for lemon in salads.

Saffron might be the fanciest of spices, cumin makes lentils sing and turmeric turns the dullest of dishes into a symphony of appetizing yellowness. But sumac is in its own category. Its unique tang goes surprisingly well with everything from chicken to lamb, and it can be used as a zesty substitute for lemon in salads. Non-Middle Eastern chefs can find an increasing variety of recipes to experiment with. Israeli celebrity chef Yotam Ottolenghi features sumac heavily in his cookbooks.

I first used it while taking a class at Beit Sitti cookery school, in Amman. On the menu was musakhan, a Palestinian dish that requires copious amounts of sumac. It’s rubbed vigorously onto the chicken before roasting, and it’s also sprinkled into a huge pot of slow-cooking onions — just a few teaspoons dyed them completely purple and released a bittersweet smell. The tasty result: deep golden, slightly zesty chicken over a bed of tender sweet onions on crispy pita. Sprinkled with even more sumac for color.

But experimenters take caution: Sumac is only for foodies with a sour tooth, and things go horribly amiss when it’s overused. Too much and “it will make the whole dish taste too bitter and even turn ugly and blackish when cooked,” warned Maria Haddad, the Beit Sitti teacher and an expert in Middle Eastern cuisine. And “it doesn’t go well with desserts or anything sweet.”

Not all sumacs are born equal, as I found out later that day, when I excitedly entered a spice shop in downtown Amman, determined to buy enough to last me a lifetime. When I tasted one sample, I recoiled at its bitterness. The shop owner, Rakan Amer Abu al-Sameh, explained that there are as many sumacs as recipes that use it. “You’ve chosen the brightest, but this one is mass-produced in Turkey,” he told me. At $3 a kilo, it was cheap, but for a reason, he sniffed: “they use dyes to turn it that purple.” Then he let me taste the good stuff — Jordanian sumac, made by local women from trees that grow in the northern part of the country. It’s more complex, with hints of tangy citrus but also savory salt. And the price is six times that of the Turkish stuff. A 50 gram container of Ottolenghi’s own costs about $4.20, and it’s $7.95 at Williams-Sonoma. For those looking to add zing to their dishes, try roaming the aisles of a Middle Eastern food shop.

Then you can start showing off by sprinkling this curious purple powder everywhere. Until the next new spice comes along.

Video by Tom Gorman. Tom is an OZY video producer.

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