The first time sumac and I were introduced was at Moby Dick’s House of Kabob in Washington, DC, the location in Georgetown, if you must know. I was having dinner with my friend, Sepideh, when she shook a liberal quantity onto her chelo kebab. Not knowing what was in the shaker, it looked like ground pepper flakes, I proceeded with caution. This meal was early in my eating adventures, and I was still smarting from my introduction to wasabi, that someone (a very evil person) told me was mashed avocado. However, I knew my friend had an aversion to all things spicy hot, so I gave it a go. I shook some on my chicken kabob, took a bite, and quickly added more… and more. This stuff is tart, and kicks up the flavors like squeezing a lemon over your food. For tasty surprises like this, I implicitly trust Sepideh with all things Persian, and especially kabobs.
Part of my reluctance stemmed from suspicion that sumac was poisonous. Some sumac is, especially the variety grown in the United States as an ornamental plant – its highly toxic, and has white berries. The kind found in Middle Eastern cooking, most definitely is not. Although with over 250 varieties of sumac you’re bound to be lucky sometime.
Middle Eastern cooks use sumac extensively, especially in Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon. When used as a condiment, its either plain, or mixed with sesame seeds and thyme leaves (Zatar). Before lemons came from Europe, Romans used sumac to flavor their food. As I mentioned, the flavor is citrusy or vinegary, but milder and not as acidic. The dried sumac also had a dark cherry color which adds a nice touch to dishes.
During the Iranian new year, Now-Rooz, which falls on either March 21 or 22, depending on the year, the “sofreh-ye haft seen” or seven dishes are provided at the table. They are seven symbolic ingredients and include soumagh or sumac, and represents the color of sunrise, and with the appearance of the sun good conquers evil.
Here are some ways I like to use sumac (I make no claims for authenticity):
- add to my humus
- marinate fish in olive oil, garlic and sumac – grill
- add to sauteed vegetables
- tossed on a salad
If you have never tried sumac before, I strongly encourage you to run to your nearest Mediterranean grocery to get your hands on this spice. Aysegul, of NYS Delight mentions her family’s store in New York City, or the Balboa Market in San Diego, or Haigs Delicacies in San Francisco. Penzey’s also carries it.
Iran’s arguably most famous dish is chelo kebab which has a long history in Persian culture.
Chelo Lamb Kebab
serves 4 to 6
1 1/2 lbs. ground lamb
1 large onion, finely chopped
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. pepper
2 T flour
1 1/2 cups uncooked rice
4 T butter
3 tomatoes, halved
Salt & Pepper, Sumac
Mix lamb, onion, egg, salt, pepper, and flour until smooth. Shape into oblong patties about 5 inches long, 1 1/2 inches wide, and 1 inch thick; set aside.
Cook rice; sprinkle with cold water, shake gently so grains do not stick together. Drain 5 minutes. Melt butter in frying pan and pile the rice in it in a dome shape; sprinkle with paprika if desired. Place over low heat for 10 minutes to dry rice. Meanwhile, cook lamb patties in a broiler or on barbecue for 10 minutes on each side. Dot tomato halves with butter; salt and pepper and grill for ~ 8 minutes. Stack cooked lamb patties on rice dome; arrange tomatoes at bottom or on separate plate. Serve hot.