This is a spice that grows in many people's gardens without their knowing it. It's the tiny, angular, jet-black seeds of Nigella sativa, a dainty plant known as love-in-a-mist (actually, commercial nigella comes from a particular variety of love-in-a-mist).
As a spice, it has an elusive flavor, faintly peppery, something like charcoal and oregano, but not really like anything we're familiar with in American cookery. It goes particularly well with the smell of fresh bread, and that's its main use from India to North Africa. Its Turkish name actually means "corek spice," because it's always sprinkled on the rich bread called corek, which is served at the end of Ramadan.
In India and Iran, nigella is often used in pickling spice mixtures, even for pickled fruits. It can be sprinkled on salads or mixed with cumin, coriander and saffron for fish.
During the Middle Ages, it was often sprinkled on yogurt because of the dramatic contrast of black and white. A ninth century Baghdad poet compared a dish of yogurt and nigella to a bridegroom "swaggering in a robe embroidered with calligraphy." The black seeds would actually look a bit like the angular Arabic calligraphy of the poet's time.
This is a first cousin to black pepper, but it looks quite different, like an elongated miniature pine cone of tiny gray seeds. Actually, there are two kinds, the Indonesian being hotter than the Indian and distinctly hotter than black pepper.
It was the original pepper, before the West knew of black pepper. Our word "pepper" comes from the Sanskrit name for it, pippali. However, long pepper is less aromatic than black pepper and its taste includes an odd resinous, turpentine-like note, so black pepper was already more popular for most purposes by Roman times.
Still, until the spread of chile peppers, it was the hottest spice available, and that was enough to keep it on spice merchants' shelves throughout the Middle Ages. The spread of hot chiles has turned it into a rarity, even in its Indonesian home. The Indonesian word for long pepper, cabe, nearly always means hot chiles today.
However, long pepper survives here and there. It's traditional in some Moroccan spice blends and still has a place in Indian cookery, especially in breads and lentil dishes. In China and Southeast Asia, it figures in pickling spice blends.
This is a spice that tests the definition of the word, because you might as well call it a dried fruit. It has a dried-fruit aroma like that of raisins and prunes, though with a certain briary, woody quality of its own. Unlike most spices, which tend to be bitter, its taste is sharply sour. (Some North American members of the same family have names like vinegar tree and lemonade berry for the same reason.)
But the dried purplish berries are ground like a spice and put on foods like a spice. Iranians sprinkle sumac in rice pilaf, particularly when it is served with grilled meat. Arabs mix it with wild thyme to make zaatar, which they put on fried eggs. In Turkey, a mixture of sumac, thyme and sesame seeds flavors shish kebab.
On the other hand, sumac is used where you might use fruit juice for a jolt of sour flavor, though without the added liquid. It can replace lemon juice or vinegar in Lebanese salads. In the little pyramidal pie-like appetizers called fatayir, Lebanese cooks sprinkle the spinach filling with ground sumac. Turkish cooks use the juice of fresh sumac berries as a marinade for fish or chicken.
Yes, it is related to poison sumac, and therefore to poison oak and poison ivy, but it's completely harmless. Botanists often put the poison cousins in their own family, Toxicodendron, to underscore this. And anyway, cashews are also related, and nobody worries about cashews.
A culinary profile of novelist Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, author of "The Mistress of Spices," H6
Plus, Bengali Pineapple Chutney, left, and other recipes for cooking in the spice kitchen. H7
* The Kitchen Table
Real Cooks profiles South African-born Indian cook Logam Naidoo Penry. Spices are her passion. H8
CHICKEN CURRY WITH METHI LEAVES
Like most Indian curries, this dish employs turmeric for rich, golden color. Seasoned in classic north Indian style, it is rich in flavor too. Methi means fenugreek. You can buy the dried leaves, and occasionally fresh ones, at Indian markets.
1 (3- to 4-pound) chicken
2 onions, sliced
2 tablespoons finely chopped garlic
2 tablespoons finely chopped ginger root
2 tablespoons clarified butter or oil
1 cup yogurt
1 tablespoon canned tomato puree
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon coriander
1/3 cup whipping cream
1/3 cup water
2 tablespoons dried fenugreek leaves
Cut chicken into small (about 2-inch) pieces. Remove and discard skin, if desired.