Chopstick Cinema

Celeste Heiter's Adventures in Asian Food & Film

A Timely Gift

A most unusual and timely gift arrived in the mail a couple of weeks ago. It was a letter from my sister-in-law, Jane Derick, a lovely Canadian woman who is married to my older brother Steven. They live in Ottawa, and, being the genteel lady that she is, she still practices the rapidly-vanishing art of handwritten correspondence. She writes the most fascinating letters, filled with news of their artistic and musical activities, often accompanied by unexpected enclosures such as snippets of fabric, magazine clippings, and small handicrafts. I never know what trifles and delights I will find inside an envelope with Jane's handwriting on it.

Well...this time, it was a recipe for fatoosh, and a tiny packet of a powdered spice called sumac, which is widely used in Middle Eastern food. It's almost as if she'd tapped into my psyche. At the time she mailed the letter, she couldn't possibly have known that this month's menu would be Middle Eastern. I hadn't announced it yet. And after the Middle Eastern dinner I had at Pasha for Rene's birthday, I was most curious to investigate this newly-discovered spice called 'sumac'.

As a child growing up in Alabama, I was deathly allergic to a wild plant called sumac, which grew in the woods that bordered our yard. It produces a rash, similar to that of poison ivy or poison oak, and I was forbidden to play in the woods, because every time I did, it meant a trip to the doctor for a pricey bottle of special lotion to soothe the itching. But despite my compliance with the edict set forth by my mother, we also discovered that I didn't even have to touch the sumac to have an allergic reaction to it. On my eighth birthday, I awoke with my face swollen up like a cherry pie because one of our neighbors had burned sumac clippings on their trash pile, and I had breathed the smoke from it. Yikes!

So when I saw 'sumac' listed as one of the spices on the menu at Pasha, I was naturally leery and didn't order any dishes that contained it. Nonetheless I was still curious, and with a little investigation on the Internet the following day, I learned that the sumac used as a spice in Middle Eastern cuisine is in no way related to the wild variety that I'm so allergic to.

So...with this month's Dinner & a Movie, I will get to try sumac at last. Thank you Jane.