Sumac - An Essay
There are people you come across in life and from the first moment you know they’re going to teach you things.
Watch them like a hawk and they’ll leave you with some good idea, some morsel of behavior you can emulate that will better your life too. They elevate you just by showing you how to be. She was one of those people- a good and gracious host, who made it all seem effortless. I knew I could learn from her. She was the mother of my college classmate Reza.
Reza’s mom had a quiet elegance about her, something confident, just shy of self-satisfaction, a self-possession. It, of course, added to her appeal. I can’t remember her first name now, though I do recall wanting to be like her when I grew up. I was in college, a sophomore who dreamed of being poised and sophisticated, and hadn’t really had much exposure to women like her.
I went to her home several times, nestled in the woods just outside Boston.
She had glossy dark hair that hung loosely just past her collarbone, wore only white or cream, and very little makeup. Maybe a slash of red lipstick for a party here and there, like the girls in Paris, but that’s it. She had no girlishness though, she was all woman, all-knowing, cool, and decidedly Eastern. She carried herself with grace, and like all mysterious women, as if she knew something the rest of us didn’t. Her voice sounded like velvet.
Her home was a vision: modern and white set across a grassy slope with a stream nearby that ran beside the length of it. It was all surrounded by willow trees. They rustled in the spring breeze, dappling the light. Inside all was white except the accents of Islamic art, a gorgeous painting of a horse in motion in the miniature style but on a grand scale that hung over the airy living room. Her couches, white, with heavy books on the table, revealing how cultured she was on a myriad of subjects. There were always giant worry beads draped over the books. Many were in Farsi like the Shahnameh.
She floated, more than walked. Her kitchen was all white too, with all the cupboards matching- a Richard Meier dream- complete with a cutout panel for a tiny television. This was way before flat screens and before any of us knew who Richard Meier was.
Reza’s mom threw great dinner parties, and casual cookouts, preparing it all herself. She laid out huge, shallow baskets of fresh herbs and radishes to munch on and platters and platters of different Persian dishes: salads and pilafs crowned with perfectly intact, crunchy, brown tahdig crusts, laid over mounds of fragrant saffron rice. It was not my first taste of Persian food, but it was my first time in a Persian kitchen. Until then my family and I had only driven to Westwood in Los Angeles for kabobs on the weekends. This was the first Persian home I’d been to, and what a home. She was a fancy lady. I wanted to be placid and soigné like her.
Persian food is similar to Indian food, with its stews, long-grain rice, and tart flavors. It’s spiced but delicate. High art, and for a curious eater like me-heaven. It’s complex and vegetable-forward- elegant in its restraint with powerful flavors. I loved every bite. And if eating like this could make me more like her? All the better.
I was in awe of how all this food was coming out of her kitchen, so immaculate it had barely any spices strewn around or any oil splatters near the stove. I came, offering my help, and caught a glimpse of her reaching into a cupboard to the right above the stove. She pulled out a small packet containing a vermillion-colored powder. I had inside this cabinet before. Once when she made me tea, she reached for tins from Harrod’s in London, and everything, from her tiny silver spoon for the honey to the teapot she used, exuded a life of training, travel, and easiness. Or at least she made everything in her world seem easy. Tea from Harrod’s after all! At that point, all of my travel had been between my mom’s little nurse’s apartment in New York City back home to India in the summers to my granny’s house. Neither of these homes or the homes that surrounded them was anything like the sleek and serene atmosphere this being inhabited.
But what was this red powder? I had seen my friend Reza with a small packet in his college dorm kitchen too. But I never saw Reza cook!
She took out a small silver expresso spoon from her drawer. (Who keeps their silver in the kitchen drawer? Is that what she used every day?) At that age, I’d never been in a house that had “good silver” to begin with. Then she lightly dusted the sumac over a yogurt dip as well as other dishes before they were carried out. I had been observing her from the edge of her kitchen, wanting to soak up and memorize her every move. I didn’t want her to think I was stalking her, but I much preferred being with her to my friends. So, I offered to help her. I’d do anything for her, so carrying a few trays in order to linger in her presence seemed a good bet. “What is that spice you’re using? It’s beautiful!” I sheepishly asked her. Like you!, I wanted to scream.
“Oh, it’s sumac,” she purred with a small smile. She explained it was used in traditional Persian cooking. It looked gorgeous, like crushed garnets, and glistened deep burgundy against the yogurt sauce.
She let me taste a pinch. Her soft hand grabbed mine by the wrist and turned it over, sprinkling a bit on my palm. It had a fruity, tart bite of flavor that sent a pang from the front of my tongue to the sides and back. My mouth began to water slightly.
And ever since then I’ve loved sumac. I use it all the time these days to give flavor to a dish or even as a garnish to dress it up. And I still admire Reza’s mom in my dreams. I still aspire to float like her and host like her with ease and make everyone feel a little like I’m cooking just for them.
From my book The Encyclopedia of Herbs & Spices:
Sumac comes from a shrub native to the Mediterranean, and its history dates to ancient times. The Romans use sumac berries as a souring agent and flavoring before citrus fruits reached the region. Sumac still grows wild around the Mediterranean, including in Sicily and southern Italy; major sources today include Turkey and the Middle East.
Sumac berries, which are about the size of a peppercorn, grow in clusters and turn from green to crimson as they ripen.
(There are many varieties of the shrub, and some of them- including many of those used as ornamental bushes in North America- are poisonous, so don’t be tempted to harvest sumac berries from your backyard. However, Native Americans traditionally used sumac berries to make a refreshing drink, and they also used both leaves and berries in tobacco mixtures.) The berries are picked by hand when mature but slightly underripe and then dried, still on the stem, in the sun for several days. The fully dried berries range from brick-red to almost purple in color.
Although they are sometimes sold whole, they are more often ground to a coarse, slightly moist powder; the best-quality powders are a deep reddish-purple. Sumac has a clean, fruity fragrance and tart, fruity, astringent flavor, with a citrus tang but without the sharpness of lemon juice.
Sumac is widely used in cooking in Turkey and the Middle East, especially in Lebanon, Iran, and Iraq. The dried whole berries must be soaked or ground before use; occasionally, the berries are soaked to soften them and then are strained out, pressed to release all their juices, and the liquid used as part of the cooking medium for a stew or other dish. A simple salad of sliced onions seasoned with ground sumac is popular throughout the Middle East.
Sumac flavors kebabs and grilled meats, fish, and chicken, and it is added to marinades for foods that will be roasted or grilled. It can be stirred into yogurt to make a marinade, or the seasoned yogurt can be served on its own as a dip or a condiment.
Sumac is also sprinkled over rice, hummus, or baba ghanoush, along with a drizzle of olive oil, as a garnish and flavoring. It is an essential ingredient in the Middle Eastern spice blend za’atar.
What a great piece on Sumac! My fiancé is a private chef and he introduced me to it. He also spent time in Istanbul where he fell in love with Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine, and of course - Sumac! His sister (who is, funny enough, married to an Italian, so he also knows Sumac well) has a lemon allergy, so whenever the family is cooking together, Sumac is our go-to substitute for any time we need a citrus-y element!
Your writing is very evocative - both here and on Twitter! :)
Like you I grew up in India and am now a New Yorker. Caught between two worlds I made a short personal doc - https://vimeo.com/319019072 - would love to hear your thoughts! And help getting it out in the world :)
Tanmaya // email@example.com