Secret ingredient: Sumac

VIRGIL EVETTS
Last updated 05:00 28/11/2012

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Ever puzzled by seeing sumac in an ingredients list or on a restaurant menu? Here's how to use it.

WHAT IS SUMAC?

Sumac is a spice or, perhaps more accurately, a souring agent, made from the dried fruit of Rhus coriaria, a straggly shrub native to southern Europe and Turkey. The rusty red powder is widely used in Middle Eastern and North African cooking, where it is much esteemed for its sourness and astringency.

Premium-quality sumac is made from the seeded, dried and ground sumac fruit, while cheaper grades include the ground seeds and are conspicuously gritty as a result. Whole dried sumac is available too, but it must be ground before use or steeped in hot water (rather like tamarind), then strained to extract flavour.

The name sumac is loosely applied to many related plants, including a number of common ornamental species grown in New Zealand. However, many so-called sumacs are toxic and should not be confused with the true culinary version. Rhus coriaria plants do not exist in New Zealand (although I welcome correction on the subject), but would thrive in some districts.

WHAT DOES IT TASTE LIKE?

Very sour and astringent, with a vaguely metallic, wine-like flavour.

WHERE CAN I FIND IT?

Sumac is available from specialist delicatessens, food emporiums, Indian spice shops and at some supermarkets.

GOT ANY GOOD RECIPES USING IT?

This spicy sumac celery salt evolved in my kitchen. Use it as a dry rub for roasted and barbecued meats (particularly good with chicken), grilled fish or sprinkled over pizza bread.

In a mortar and pestle pound 1 Tbsp Sumac with 1 Tbsp celery seeds that have been lightly toasted first in a dry pan with 1/4 cup sea salt and dried chilli powder to taste. For a warm, orangey edge, add 1/2 tsp toasted coriander seeds.

QUICK TIPS
Less is always more with sumac. Used deftly it brings mysterious subtlety and a flavour that's alluringly out of reach in terms of naming it. Used to excess, sumac is wincingly sour and harsh.

Virgil Evetts is a member of the New Zealand Guild of Food Writers. Follow his adventures in food, gardening and urban farming here.

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