I remember the first time I tasted sumac.
I was a 15 year old apprentice, brand new, and helping out with a catering job. I asked the chef to taste what I'd made because I knew it was alright but it just needed something. You know the feeling, right? When it's good but not quite good enough and there's something missing but you can't work it out?
Fortunately my chef knew exactly what it needed
It needed Sumac: a subtle kick of peppery, sour citrus. And, to be honest, probably also salt; I was a notorious under-salter as an apprentice. And, just like that, a lifelong obsession with a powdered North African flower was born, along with a deep curiosity about a region of the world and the spices within it.
Not so many years later I found myself on a plane bound for Tel Aviv with an insatiable appetite and very little concern for my personal safety. My first meal after landing was Shakshuka, and I spent the next few months eating everything I could get my hands on. Falafel and Ful in Cairo, Halva and Hummus in Jerusalem, Harissa and Brik pastries in Tunis, Maqluba and Kunafah in Amman, Tajines and Dates in Marrakech, and more and more and more...
The area known as the Levant covers a group of Eastern Mediterranean countries like Israel, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. The food and cultures in this area vary from region to region but there are interesting similarities too.
I was fortunate to experience a home-made lunch in the North of Israel, not far from the Syrian border. Think flatbreads, kofte, tahini, stuffed vegetables, and way too much food for anyone to possibly finish. More and more dishes were piled onto the table long after we were full. The traditions of hospitality in this area are incredibly generous. Our guide explained: if your guests finish all the plates, how can you be sure you completely satisfied their hunger?
Zucchini and Capsicum stuffed with lamb mince was a dish I first ate at this table, then many times again over the course of my travels. Sometimes the stuffings changed to rice or nuts or couscous, and sometimes the vegetables were different. Occasionally they were baked, braised or charred, and served hot or cold. Stuffed vegetables were everywhere. Whenever I eat them now it evokes such a strong sense of that place in that time.
The frosts at home have been late this year so we've had a few extra weeks of eggplant crossing over into Autumn, aka cauliflower, territory. When a friend came around for dinner last week I knew exactly what to make her.
Harissa-baked Jerusalem Artichokes, Couscous with Pomegranate and, Eggplant & Zucchini stuffed with Spiced Cauliflower. All served with a side of sumac yoghurt.
In true Levantine style there was too much food.