Talking Sumac: Five Essential Middle-Eastern and Eastern Mediterranean Ingredients

On-trend market staples worth a place in your pantry.

So entrenched are East Asian ingredients in the modern culinary vernacular that menu items of the “yuzu-spiked broccoli with miso butter” variety barely register as cross-cultural. The latest arsenal of flavors to capture local chefs’ collective imagination hails from just a little farther west: the aromatic spices and rich condiments of the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean, as evidenced both by new restaurants influenced by the regions’ cuisines (Sarma, Fairsted Kitchen, and, coming this spring, Juniper, a Wellesley eatery from Sweet Basil’s Dave Becker) and by those increasingly content to dabble with the ingredients (Regal Beagle, West Bridge, and the forthcoming La Brasa, from Sel de la Terre alum Daniel Bojorquez). Not only do we fully support the burgeoning practice of drizzling tart pomegranate molasses over fatty lamb ribs or incorporating herbaceous za’atar into cocktails—we also recommend you try it at home.

middle-eastern spices

Photograph by Bruce Peterson. Styling by Jessica Weatherhead/TEAM

Pomegranate Molasses

This syrup is made by boiling down pomegranate juice until it’s sticky and viscous. It’s quite potent, uniquely sweet-tart, and a traditional component of Middle Eastern stews and dips.

How to use it: As a glaze for grilled meats and roasted veggies, or as a tangy counterpart to yogurt (see: labneh).


An integral component of bracing fattoush salad dressing, this berry is typically dried and ground into a beautiful burgundy powder and used for its bright—yet not aggressive—tartness.

How to use it: As a transformative addition to store-bought hummus, bland salad dressings, and delicate seafood.


While specific blends vary from country to country, za’atar is a mix of herbs (typically thyme and oregano), toasted sesame seeds, and sumac.

How to use it: As a spice rub for roast chicken, in a braise, or as a coating for oven-caramelized carrots. To keep it simple, sprinkle over olive oil and use as a dipper for bread or pita.

Urfa Biber

These dried chilies from the Urfa region of Turkey are a milder, fruitier, smokier alternative to standard-issue red chili flakes.

How to use it: As you would other ground chilies, or as a final flourish for rich dips.


The Lebanese answer to Greek yogurt, this strained yogurt cheese is even thicker than its Hellenic sibling, with a velvety richness and pleasing tang.

How to use it: As the base for a sweet or savory dip, or mixed with scallions and herbs for a spread that will majorly upgrade a homemade breakfast sandwich. For a luxurious snack, simply top a small serving with granola.


Find these ingredients—and many more!—at Arax Market, 585 Mount Auburn St., Watertown, 617-924-3399.