More than a spice

More Than a Spice

More Than a Spice: Sumac, Recipes and Stories from Syria

I adore Middle Eastern food and am pleased to see that we now have access to lots of takeaways, as well as supermarket foods, that embrace this wonderful cuisine.  Even Waitrose now has a dedicated Levantine range.  So when I heard that there was an exciting new cookbook out that would teach me more about the region’s food, I jumped at the chance to read it! It’s called Sumac – after the delicious deep-red spice – and the author is Anas Atassi, who was born in Homs but now lives in Amsterdam. Sumac the spice is the ‘red thread’ that connects every dish and is the red thread that will guide you through this fabulous book.

Bordering six countries, Syria is home to a vast array of ethnicities and religions, including Syrian Arabs, Kurds, Tuerkemens, Assyrians, Armenians and Greeks and Sunnis, Christians, Alawites and Yazidis. Such a focused area of diversity has brought with it countless influences through the centuries, leaving their mark. Modern-day Syria’s dishes vary immensely, from those that seem Mediterranean (in Tartus), that have Turkish or Armenian flavours (in Aleppo), or that are kept simple and subtle (in Damascus). One shared ingredient through all of these cultures and influences is Sumac. 

More than a spice

Atassi fondly remembers his childhood and has often longed for familiar cuisine. In response to this yearning, and as a way to pay tribute to his homeland, he’s created this exquisitely photographed cookbook of over 80 recipes from both traditional and contemporary Syrian cuisine. They’re inspired by his family dishes, featuring everything from the wonderful Friday breakfasts Anas often ate in his grandmother’s garden and his mother’s sfeeha (small savoury pies) to za’atar flatbread, batata harra (spicy potatoes), sayadiyah (spicy fish pilaf with caramelised onions) and Zahra (spicy roasted cauliflower) which he enjoys making for his friends.

Below are some recipes from the book to whet your appetite – it will make a fabulous gift (you’ll be tempted to browse through it before wrapping it!) and a great Father’s Day gift for one who’s a dab hand in front of the stove.

Sumac: Recipes and stories by Anas Atassi (£25, Murdoch Books). Photography by Anas Atassi. The author-photographer is Jeroen van der Spek.

Mufarakeh – Eggs with Beef and Zuchini (SERVES 4)

Mufarakeh - Eggs with Beef and Zuchini

“This dish reminds me of long days out and about with my family when we lived in Saudi Arabia – hours of shopping at Ikea, for example (yes, Ikea is everywhere). When we got back home, my mother would make something simple and tasty with whatever we had in our home pantry. We always ate it with flatbread – something I still do to this day.”

2 tablespoons of olive oil

1 onion (chopped)

1 zucchini (courgette) (cut into large pieces)

250 g (9 oz) of minced beef

Salt and pepper

4 eggs

1 bunch of flat-leaf parsley (coarsely chopped)

Heat the oil in a large pan. Add the onion and the zucchini and stir-fry until golden brown.

Add the minced beef and break it up into small pieces with a wooden spoon. Brown it for 5 minutes, until it is completely cooked. Salt and pepper to taste.

Turn the heat to low and make four little wells in the beef mixture. Crack an egg into each well. Cover and cook the eggs for 3–5 minutes, or until the yolks are thoroughly cooked.

Serve in the pan, generously sprinkled with parsley.

Sayadiyah — Spicy Fish Pilaf with Caramelised Onions (SERVES 6)

Sayadiyah — Spicy Fish Pilaf with Caramelised Onions

“To make traditional fish pilaf, you usually prepare the rice and fish separately, and serve the fish on top of a mountain of rice. In my version, I prepare the rice and fish at the same time. This gives the flavours a chance to meld together. The juices from the cooking fish lend creaminess to the rice. Choose a firm white fish that won’t fall apart too easily while cooking.”

6 tablespoons of olive oil

5 onions (halved and sliced into thin rings)

700 ml (24 fl oz) of fish or vegetable stock

½ teaspoon of ground cardamom

½ teaspoon of ground cumin

½ teaspoon of ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon of ground cloves

½ teaspoon of ground turmeric

Salt and pepper

500 g (1 lb 2 oz) of cod fillet (with scales and bones removed)

400 g (2 cups) of long-grain rice (rinsed and soaked for 10 minutes)

15 g (¼ cup) of blanched almonds (toasted)

15 g (¼ cup) of pine nuts (toasted)

Blender or food processor

In a large saucepan, heat 4 tablespoons of olive oil on medium heat. Add the onion rings to the hot oil and cook for 15 minutes. Do not have the heat set too high because onions burn easily. Spoon the caramelised onions out of the pan and drain them on paper towel. Reserve half to garnish.

Pulse the other half of the caramelised onions in a blender into a thick, dark-brown paste. Add the stock, ground cardamom, ground cumin, cinnamon, clove and turmeric. Blend everything on the pulse setting. Salt and pepper the stock to taste. Set aside – it will be used to cook the rice.

In a deep pan, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil on medium heat and sear the fish on both sides.

Add the rice to the pan with the fish. Pour the stock from the blender over the fish and rice and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down to low, cover, and simmer for 12–15 minutes until the rice has cooked and absorbed all the liquid. Take the pan off the heat, cover, and let the rice rest for 10 minutes. The rice should be fluffy in texture and will have absorbed all the flavours.

Spoon the pilaf into a serving dish, sprinkle with toasted nuts and garnish with the reserved caramelised onions.

The Hampton Court Palace Artisan Festival 

Gold and Glory at Hampton Court Palace

18-20 JUNE

Life seems to be returning to a semblance of ‘normal’ and one of the first things to look forward to is the new Hampton Court Palace Artisan Festival. Bringing together gifting, crafts, traditional entertainment and street food, it’s in a delightful festival setting within the palace’s formal gardens. 

This event complements the Hampton Court Palace Food Festival, running later in the summer, and brings together unique creators, businesses, makers and producers, alongside street food and traditional British entertainment.  Hampton Court Palace admission tickets include free entry to the Artisan Festival, while Historic Royal Palaces members can also enjoy free entry.   

For further information and to purchase tickets visit:

The Seasoned Gastronome

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