soup sumacWell, hello.

After months of searching, I finally found you … a lone bottle of sumac sitting on the spice shelf at La Cuisine.

I’d never heard of you until a couple of years ago, when I bought Suzanne Goin’s gorgeous cookbook, Sunday Suppers at Lucques. She said you were the go-to spice for her silky, deep-red bell pepper soup. Then I became a fan of Yotam Ottolenghi and all things Jerusalem and saw you mentioned more and more.

I was hooked. But you’re an elusive little spice. Not quite mainstream. I could have ordered you online, but the hunt was much more fun. I scoured grocery stores and specialty shops, but the spices on offer went from saffron to sesame seeds to thyme. No sumac to be found.

Undeterred, I kept on searching. I soon realized I wasn’t alone.

“We don’t carry that spice,” one proprietor told me. “But lots of people have been asking about it.”

“It’s the lure of Ottolenghi,” I said.

Saturday, I convinced my husband to accompany me on a trip to Alexandria, VA, and my favorite kitchen store. Lo and behold, there you were: A lone bottle of sumac nestled toward the back of the shelf. I snapped you up, took you home and set about making Suzanne’s red pepper soup.

I didn’t have everything she called for. Instead of fresh red peppers, I had a jar of roasted ones. I had a couple of tomatoes, which I thought might make a tasty addition. I began putting the soup together, but stopped before adding you to the mix.

Shouldn’t I taste you first? Get an idea of what the fuss is about?

Sumac, you live up to your image! You’re tangy. You pack a bit of heat. You’re slightly lemony and slightly sweet. You’re what I imagine the love child of lemon verbena and paprika would taste like. No wonder the ancient Middle Easterners used you for acidity before the Romans introduced them to lemons. I can’t imagine how lovely it would be to see your deep red berries growing wild both there and in the Mediterranean.

The soup was delicious … deeply flavored and russet red. And now that I know what you taste like, I can’t wait to use you in more things: You’d be wonderful dusted on sweet potatoes or stirred into black beans. An unexpected substitute for cumin in my favorite marinade. Your subtle sweetness even makes me want to add you to a chocolate cake.

Now that I’ve found you, the possibilities are endless! But my first love will always be this soup:

soup served

Chilled Red Pepper Soup (adapted from Sunday Suppers At Lucques)

  •  1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 sprig rosemary
  • 1 small chile de arbol
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons sumac, divided
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons fresh thyme
  • 1 12-ounce jar roasted red peppers, drained and chopped
  • 2 medium tomatoes, chopped
  • 1/8 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/2 cup yogurt
  • Juice of half a lemon

Heat the oil in a large saute pan, then add the rosemary and the chile. Let them sizzle for 30 seconds to a minute, then add the onions, some salt and pepper, and saute until they become translucent:

soup base

When the onions are tender, add 1 teaspoon sumac and the thyme and cook for about 30 seconds. Add the peppers, tomatoes, sugar and a bit more salt and pepper, then stir to combine:

soup peppers and tomatoes

Add 4 cups of water. Bring the mixture to a boil, then simmer for 20-30 minutes, or until the tomatoes are falling apart.

Cool the mixture, then strain it over a large bowl, reserving the cooking liquid.

Place half the vegetables in a blender. Add 1/2-3/4 cup of the cooking liquid. Puree until smooth and transfer to a clean bowl.

Repeat with the remaining vegetables and another 1/2-3/4 cup liquid. You’ll most likely have cooking liquid left over. That’s okay … you want the soup to be the consistency of heavy cream:

soup blended

Place the bowl with the pureed soup into the refrigerator and chill until cold.

Meanwhile, combine the yogurt with the lemon juice, the remaining 1/2 teaspoon sumac, salt and pepper:

soup crema

When the soup is cold, ladle it into small bowls and drizzle the cream on top.

This serves 4.

soup served