Trying new recipes and exploring unfamiliar cuisines can be intimidating, exciting, rewarding and – at first glance – expensive. If an Ottolenghi recipe has an ingredient list that extends to a whole A4 page and you've never tried making Israeli food before, the number of speciality ingredients feels overwhelming.
But that's all to do with perception and learning how to integrate those ingredients into your daily food preparation. The more you use pomegranate molasses or preserved lemons, the less it feels like an investment and you'll know that you're getting your money's worth.
Learning the history of those ingredients will only add to the experience. Instead of having a bottle of something perhaps unfamiliar to your palate languishing at the back of the cupboard, you can find new ways to incorporate it into your cooking.
Ahead we've extracted six of Kassis' beautiful recipes using za'atar and sumac, as well as her text exploring why they are so important to Arab cuisine. You'll never let your 'speciality' ingredients go untouched for months again.
The least understood yet most recognised ingredient of the Middle East has to be za’atar. Za’atar has been a staple in Arab cuisine since the Middle Ages, and evidence points to it having been used as far back as Ancient Egypt. Contrary to what some may think, za’atar is not thyme or a mixture of different dried herbs and spices. Za’atar is an actual plant native to the Levant, most closely related to oregano. In season, it is foraged and the leaves picked and used in various ways. When I was a child, every spring my family would take trips to the mountains surrounding Jerusalem to pick za’atar leaves. We used some in salads and bread, then dried the rest for use throughout the year. The most recognised item sold as za’atar in the West is the condiment, traditionally made by drying the herb’s leaves and then crushing and mixing them with sesame seeds and sumac to form a mixture enjoyed with bread and olive oil. But the leaves are also used fresh in salads or folded into pastries. Today, I also use za’atar as a way to add flavor to foods and give them an Arab flair.
Sumac, a component of the za’atar blend we have come to know and love in the West, has its own fascinating history. Prevalent in medieval Arabic cookbooks, there are entire sections dedicated to dishes made with either its juice or its powder. Summaqiyat is a whole category of stews made with sumac, but there are plenty of other dishes in which it is used to flavour chicken, lamb, and even pickles. Its uses today seem to have become less varied, although there are still a few places, like Gaza, where sumaqiya is one of the most recognised local dishes. Generally perceived as Middle Eastern, there are in fact many species of sumac that are native to North America where it was gathered and put to multiple uses by native Americans and continues to be foraged across the continent today.
Sumac is a flowering plant whose berries are used in cooking. They are dried, ground, and then sifted. The sifting is important because it gets rid of the inner seed, which is bitter, and leaves the skin, which is a beautiful crimson colour with a sour flavour. What is sold in stores is at times not sifted, mixed with salt, or even worse, a combination of citric acid and food colouring. So the best advice I can give is to choose a trusted brand with no additional ingredients, or if you have access to the plant, pick and dry your own, then grind and sift.
Both za’atar and sumac are what I like to call "flavour makers" because they brighten up dishes and give them depth. Many of my recipes feature these ingredients—but take them as a blueprint. Za’atar can be used to flavour pastries and breads, but don’t settle for the options I have given here. Experiment with your favourite loaf, or your preferred pastry for a new twist. Sumac can be used in place of lemon juice or pomegranate molasses or anytime you want something sour. Use it in salad dressings or to marinate chicken before grilling. The recipes here will, I hope, get you familiar with the flavour notes of these two magical ingredients. From there, what you can do with them is boundless.