I had a couple of other titles for this blog-post: “Searching for Sumac”, “A Sumac Sortie”, since alliteration seems to come naturally to me, when I remembered again a recent scathing attack on alliteration as a style by someone whom I regard as knowledgeable in the writing field. Nevertheless, both those titles would have conveyed something about the journey and the battle to find sumac in Johannesburg, and probably in the rest of this country.
I did not know what sumac was until about 5 years ago, when I had a salad at a little restaurant in Parktown North, with this unusual looking and tasting spice sprinkled on top. On inquiry, the owner told me that this was sumac, but she was vague and clearly reluctant to tell me where I could find it: mumbling about getting it from some Turkish place, promising to email me the details. It never happened, and at the time my energy was taken up trying to hold together a relationship which was fast deteriorating: in fact, I was with my then partner on that day of my first taste of sumac. He thought I was being too curious, too obsessed with food and ingredients and exotic new tastes. It was a classic case of that which he found incredibly attractive about me in the beginning of our relationship: that I loved cooking and entertaining and learning about food; now had become a source of irritation and even ridicule. He did not love me of course. True to his narcissistic nature, he needed me to only always do and say things he would approve of, lest it reflects negatively on him. It was on that day, in that restaurant, that he told me that if I went on a training trip with my therapy mentor at the time to Cape Town, he would leave me. I went, refusing to be controlled any longer. I moved out of the bedroom soon after my return, and a painful 14 months later he relented and signed a separation agreement, which freed me up to move into my own place after living in an outside room in the back yard of a house co-owned by me. A very painful period in my life, effectively interrupting my search for sumac.
It was only 3 years ago that I returned to what I felt, was a little quest: I started asking at spice counters for sumac, with always the same response: “Sumac? what is that?”, or “Very hard to find, I’ll let you know when next we have it is stock”. I did not go back to that restaurant which is still there, by the way. It’s probably time to go back and dispel the awful association I have with it: the food, after all, was interesting, and Ottolenghi like. That I only recognise now that I have started cooking from their cookbooks. I most recently I got “Jerusalem” as a Xmas present from my beloved: a cookbook and perfume: this man does love me!
In Paris a year and a half ago or so, eating at a middle eastern restaurant, I suddenly remembered about sumac again. And of course, at a Saturday market in central Paris, I found it: I bought two packets. When my stash started getting low(making Za’atar, sprinkling it over hummus and fattoush), and with no trip to Paris or Turkey or any overseas destination in sight, I started inquiring again about two weeks ago. In a local spice shop my heart lifted for a moment, until the owner pointed to the packets of “Tsumac” which bore no resemblance to sumac. It was what looked like, a masala blend of spices and herbs. Then a friend, who knew about my search for sumac, excitedly told me of a Spar which sells sumac. I phoned the store, spoke to the manager, and asked him to read me the ingredients, which said: Ground berries of the Rhus coriaria, and I thought: bingo! I sent my husband out to fetch the reserved bottles of sumac while I went to work, but they turned out to contain exactly the same spice blend which was being sold as Tsumac. I started planning a trip to Turkey in my head, but I also posted a query on Facebook, and got a quick response, from a fellow foodie, pointing me to a source at a Turkish butchery virtually around the corner from where I live.
I have thrown out the remainder of the Paris packet: it was declared stale by the Muslim owner of the butchery, and in my fridge I have a packet of fresh, deep maroon spice with a fragrance and flavour which is very hard to describe: tart, tangy, sourish on the tongue, with a deeply earthy smell.
And, as a responsible consumer on a bit of a crusade, I took a sample to the owner of that Spar: showing him that what he is selling is not sumac and giving him the info about my source of sumac. In a little while I will go back there and see if he had followed up.
I am still thinking about the Turkey trip, or maybe even Israel. Who knows where sumac may still lead me….