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Choice ingredient: James Walters on sumac

Categories: Expert guidance

In this regular series, cooks with a connection to Borough Market explore the seasonal ingredients that give them most pleasure. This month, James Walters, co-owner of Arabica restaurant, talks about his favourite September ingredient: sumac

Sumac is a spice that comes from berries that grow on shrubs and small trees. The berries are picked and then ground to make a coarse powder. The sumac we use in the restaurant is harvested every July from the shrubs growing wild among the fertile valleys of Ajloun, north Jordan.

After being handpicked, the berries are dried throughout the blisteringly hot month of August and then crushed by hand, resulting in an earthy spice with a distinctive, citrus flavour. While ours comes from Jordan, sumac grows all over the Levant and is a staple spice for many cultures in the region.

The local ladies who produce our sumac affectionately refer to it as the “lemons from god”, because in olden times when fresh produce wasn’t so readily available in remote areas, sumac was used as a substitute, particularly when lemons were scarce or out of season. In fact, if you don’t have lemons to hand, you can mix olive oil and a generous amount of sumac, leave it to infuse for a while, and you will have a dressing that will add a real lemony kick to your dish.

Lemony flavours
It’s commonly used throughout the eastern Mediterranean to season a huge variety of salads. I love incorporating sumac in yogurt-based marinades for chicken and it works wonders at cutting through the rich, fuller flavour of lamb. It is incredibly versatile. You can substitute it in any dish that calls for lemony flavours.

It works well with an endless list of ingredients, but these are a few of my favourite partners in crime: olive oil, avocado, spinach, chard, lettuces, broad beans, artichokes, cucumbers, tomatoes, lamb, chicken, mutton, seafood, eggs, yoghurt. I could go on—it is an incredibly useful ingredient as well as a beautiful spice.

In the restaurant we use it liberally, mostly to season savoury seafood dishes and anything involving lamb, like our Armenian-style lahmacun (lamb pizza), but we also like using it to add a little zing to some desserts. The thing is to just try some, there are many simple recipes that can help you get to know this wonderful spice.

A lamb méchoui
The last thing I made at home using sumac was a lamb méchoui using lamb’s leg that had been trimmed and diced. I made a marinade using some olive oil, a teaspoon of sumac, harissa and crushed walnuts, then marinated the lamb overnight in the fridge. The next day I put the diced lamb on skewers and cooked it under the grill, but it is also great to barbecue.

As well as imparting a wonderful flavour, the sumac acts as a natural tenderiser, so it makes the lamb beautifully succulent. You can add some yoghurt to the marinade if you like and it will work fantastically.

Good sumac has to be ground gently to protect the flavour of the berries. A lot of the commercial sumac you can get has been ground in huge commercial crushers. The problem is that the combination of the heat and pressure drives off some of the intensity of the spice and it loses some of its colour, as well as flavour. It can leave the sumac looking a bit dull and washed out whereas when ground gently, it is vibrant and full-flavoured.

Hint of moisture
Another thing to look for is the texture. When sumac is too dry it can get a dusty feel which in turn gives it a dusty taste. The spice should still have a slight give if you rub it between your fingers and have a hint of moisture—it should not feel like dried sand. If it does, it’s past its best.

I love its distinctly earthy flavour and use it whenever I want to add a sharp, lemony kick to a dish. If you are looking to use it with fish I would try it first with either salmon or trout. It goes beautifully with either.

You could also try making a mixed leaf salad with radishes, mint, parsley and pomegranate seeds, sprinkled with an extra virgin olive oil, pomegranate molasses, lemon juice, sumac and muscatel vinegar dressing.