Fundamental Middle Eastern Flavors
I’ve been rather enamored with the bold, exotic flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean regions for quite some time. Growing up, I was fortunate to experience the influence of Greek, Turkish, and Lebanese cultures, though I barely ventured outside my comfort zone—pita, hummus, shawarma, and the like. As I’ve matured, I’ve discovered just how many other delicious foods this region has to offer, with many similarities of flavor and ingredients, yet, each contributing their own unique twists.
One of my more recent discoveries is sumac, a spice that comes from the flowers of the Rhus genus, about 35 plant species native to the subtropical and temperate regions in East Asia, Africa, and North America. Many of these trees are ornamental, but several have also been employed for centuries for culinary, medicinal, and ceremonial use, and also as a dye and tanning agent (the berries are a deep red color and have been prized for their potent hues of crimson and purple). However, the most extensively used in culinary applications are the sumac species growing in Eastern Asia, where the fruit is dried, ground to a fine powder, and added to all manner of dishes.
I’m sure sumac has been a flavor component within the many different Middle Eastern dishes I’ve eaten over time, though it wasn’t until the past few years that I “discovered” this distinctive spice. The flavor of sumac is unique, with a tart and lemony zest. (Over on this side of the pond, some North American species were used to make a refreshing vitamin C-rich drink known as “Sumac-ade” or “Indian Lemonade”!).
Middle Eastern cuisine puts sumac to use in many ways, often as a garnish on mezze dishes, like hummus, or added as a distinguishing flavoring agent in salads and meat dishes. In this recipe, we let sumac shine as the primary ingredient in a crunchy, pungent relish that gives a heavenly accent to the rich flavors of slow-cooked spiced lamb.
This dish has incredible depth of flavor, with a bold spice mixture known as “Lebanese 7 Spices,” which pairs excellently with the lamb. The dish is super easy to put together and incredibly hands-off in actual workload, though it does need time to cook, due to the tougher shoulder cut. For those pinched for time, a quicker-cooking cut, like loin or rib chops, could be used. A grilled, butterflied leg would also be heavenly, and would be my first choice in summer months, but for the cooler times of year, the succulence of the slow-cooked shoulder is the way to go. I love the convenience of shoulder chops, and the way the spices penetrate.
A whole shoulder roast would give equally delicious results, and would be best suited for larger crowds, though I’d suggest cutting it open and rubbing the spice mixture inside. (Do keep in mind that a whole roast will take almost all day to cook properly.) A leg roast would also be an excellent option for a group and would take less time to cook than the tougher shoulder, should that be all you can get your hands on. Adjust cooking time and method as needed.
For a deliciously well-rounded meal, this lamb would go splendidly served alongside my Cauliflower Tabbouleh and a side of pita bread. Traditional bulgur wheat tabbouleh or rice would also be an excellent alternative. And for the most authentic experience, serve an assortment of yummy condiments and garnishes of your choosing—assorted pickles, marinated vegetables, salads, sauces, and yogurts would all be welcome.
Lebanese Spiced Lamb Shoulder Chops with Sumac-Onion Relish
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: approximately 3 hours
4-8 meaty lamb shoulder chops, 6-12 oz. each
1 tablespoon sea salt
1 lemon, juiced
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon paprika
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1½ teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
⅛ teaspoon ground cardamom
1 red onion, thinly sliced
1 lemon, juiced
2 teaspoons sumac
¼ cup cilantro, mint, or parsley leaves, or a mixture
Sea salt and cracked pepper
- Prepare lamb: Preheat the oven to 300F. Combine spices and salt in a small bowl. Season lamb chops liberally on each side with spice mixture and place in a single layer in a baking dish. Squeeze lemon over the whole thing (throw juiced lemon halves in with the chops while cooking for greater depth of flavor) and pour about ½ cup of water into the bottom of the pan. Cover pan tightly with parchment paper, then foil. Bake until lamb is very tender, checking every hour or so, and adding a little more water if they seem to be drying out, about 3 hours total cooking time.
- Make sumac-onion relish: Toss thinly sliced onions with a big pinch of salt and massage a little to start releasing juices. Let sit for 10-15 minutes, then squeeze liquid from onions in batches with your hands. Transfer squeezed onions to a separate bowl. Toss onions with lemon juice, pepper, sumac, and herb leaves. Taste and add more salt, if necessary.
- Serve lamb chops with onion relish and condiments or garnishes of your choice.
Image from Briana Goodall.