“With this book, I hope to build a bridge between Syrian culture and the rest of the world with food as common denominator. But even more, I hope that Sumac will present a positive image of my country, in spite of all of the unfortunate events now taking place in Syria.” So says author Anas Atassi about his beautiful cookbook, Sumac: Recipes and stories from Syria.
Located in the MIddle East’s ‘Fertile Crescent’, with a coastline on the Mediterranean sea, Syria shares land borders with Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Israel and is just 200 km as the crow flies from the Eastern tip of Cyprus. The country is home to a vast array of ethnicities and religions, each of which play a part in Syria’s culture and cuisine. The region has a long and sometimes tumultuous history that dates back many thousands of years. Indeed, there is evidence of pre-historic life here, and archeologists label civilisation in Syria as one of the most ancient on earth.
It is a sad and deeply unfair reality that this country’s millennia-long, fascinating history has been eclipsed by a decade of news stories about the ongoing Syrian war. This book is a counterpoint to that one-sided, current affairs-lead image and a reminder of the rich complexity of Syria’s hospitality-centred culture.
Born in Homs, Syria Atassi’s childhood was divided between Saudi Arabia where his father worked, and his grandmother’s home in Homs, where he spent three magical months every summer. Today, Atassi lives in Amsterdam where he works as a tech entrepreneur, but he holds deeply to fond memories of his Syrian childhood, and the delicious food enjoyed at every meal. Named for sumac, a vibrantly red and citrusy spice that is prevalent in the cooking of the region, Atassi’s cookbook is a love letter to his natal cuisine and contains over 80 recipes inspired by family recipes, childhood reminiscences and travels to Syria in the years since he was a boy.
Like many of the cookbooks I cherish most fiercely, Sumac is filled with evocative glimpses into Syrian culture by way of Atassi’s vivid memories, which of course are all bound up with food and family. The book is enriched too with beautiful images that bring to life traditional and modern Syrian life and cuisine.
After a personal introduction, Atassi shares several pages of kitchen essentials including key spices and spice blends, tahini and pomegranate molasses, vermicelli noodles, orange blossom and rose waters, and a handful of simple recipes for oft-used sauces – zhoug, tarator and others.
The rest of the book is divided into seven chapters for Breakfast; Mezze for Sharing and Spreading; Street Food; Grains, Vegetables and More; Meat Dishes; Chicken and Fish Dishes; and Desserts and Beverages. I like that the contents pages list out every recipe in each chapter, making it even easier to find a recipe you’re looking for. That said, the Index at the back is also decent, and allows for searching by core ingredient.
Recipes are well presented: an ingredients list, clear and coherent instructions and a short passage introducing the dish. Food photography focuses on the dishes themselves, seductive close-ups of plainly-plated dishes served on homely crockery – they evoke the feeling of generosity, hospitality, and deliciousness to come.
Our first recipe made from the book is lahme bi sayniyi (lamb koftas in tahini sauce). The recipe is straightforward and easy to follow and the results are delicious; a lamb and beef bake quite unlike any we’ve tried before. The meat mix is herby with parsley and spiced with all spice, ground coriander, paprika. The kofta meat is spread out in a baking dish, topped with tomatoes and baked for a short time, then it’s covered in a rich, sweet-sour sauce of tahini, pomegranate molasses, lemon juice and the juices from the first cooking, and grilled or baked again.
Next up is tajen samak (fish with sumac and tahini sauce). Although our sauce over-thickens into a spreadable paste, we continue with the recipe and the result is absolutely delicious. The fish is moist and tender, and the sweet onion and citrusy sumac work beautifully with the tahini topping. Like the lamb koftas, this dish brings us a combination we haven’t tried before, and we really enjoy it.
Forgotten Date Cake is a great recipe to make use of any dates leftover from Christmas snacking, and indeed we had half a large box still uneaten on the dining table. We skipped the rich caramel sauce that would make this into more of a decadent dessert and enjoyed the cake on its own with tea and coffee during the day. The cake is light in texture, beautifully spiced (neither too subtle nor overwhelming) and not too sweet – definitely one we will make again.
It’s been such a pleasure not only cooking from Sumac but learning more about Syrian cuisine, culture and hospitality through its pages. The warmth of Atassi’s affection, and perhaps a hint of his yearning for the Syria of his childhood, shines through his words and recipes, supported beautifully by vivid and poignant photography of a country currently torn apart by war. Like Atassi, I hope that peace will return soon to Syria, and I look forward to being able to visit one day. In the meantime, I am gladdened to have this little piece of Syria in my kitchen library.
Recipes From Sumac
We are delighted to share these three recipes from the book, with permission from publisher Murdoch Books.
- Lamb Koftas in Tahini Sauce (Lahme bi sayniyi)
- Fish with Sumac Tahini Sauce (Tajen samak)
- Date Cake with Caramel Sauce
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Kavey Eats received a review copy of Sumac by Anas Atassi from publisher Murdoch Books. Food photography: Jeroen van der Spek. Ambience photography in Syria: Rania Kataf, with the exception of the family photographs from the private collection of Anas Atassi. Home cooked recipe photography, Kavita Favelle.