There are some meals that just hit right at your core, and for me mussakhan-inspired sumac mushrooms is one such meal. It's savory, it's tangy, the shredded mushrooms are juicy and tender. The soft bread soaks up all the flavors of the sauce, while fresh and zippy garnishes make each bite pop with color and life.
I don't usually worry about dinner being "perfect," but this might just be a perfect meal...
Not only do these sumac mushrooms tick all the boxes for flavor and texture, but it's a doodle to make. Straightforward prep, quick to cook, and so many garnish options that you're bound to have at least a few already on hand.
There would be no sumac mushrooms without Mussakhan...!
The sweet-savory base of onion and garlic, the magical combination of allspice and cumin, the depth and vivacity of sumac... All of these are core elements that draw from the classic Palestinian roasted chicken dish, mussakhan.
According to cookbook author Yasmin Khan, spiced, bone-in pieces of roasted chicken and onion are usually served on a platter, lined with a large flatbread. The roasting juices are poured over the meat, soaking into the bread, then served communally at the table (Zaitoun, p. 179*). I've seen other recipes online, like this one by Rawia Bishara, that caramelize the onions separately and spread them as base under the chicken when serving. I HIGHLY recommend trying a traditional mussakhan recipe--it's insanely delicious.
But in the meantime, let's talk about sumac mushrooms.
For this recipe, I've stuck with the savory and warming combo of allspice and cumin. While I've seen some recipes also add cardamom, I prefer to add a hearty dose of paprika. I like how the earthy, savory fruitiness works with the sumac. It also manages to add depth without crowding out the other flavors.
Sumac is a ground berry with a bright tang similar to citrus but deeper and darker, a bit earthy. It also has a bit of a tannic structure, like what you find in the skins of other berries and grapes. Combined with allspice, cumin, and paprika, it creates an incredibly complex spice blend with deep savoriness and sparkling top notes.
Mushrooms instead of chicken...?!
If you've really only had basic button mushrooms or portobellos, you might think that mushroom flavor is too assertive to take the place of chicken. In fact, that's what I would have thought up until my early 20s, before I was finally exposed to the varied and complex world of fungi.
Most resources claim that button/cremini are the mildest mushrooms (like this epicurious article, which claims they are the, "...mildest-tasting mushroom around...Less intensely flavored than many of its more exotic kin..."). That's a whole lotta bunk, and I've never seen anybody (in print) say otherwise until Hetty McKinnon's 2019 cookbook Family*: "My kids don't love the strong flavor of button or cremini mushrooms, but they don't mind the more mellow flavors of shiitake." (p. 13).
Some mushrooms are savory and meaty, while some are deeply earthy and woodsy.
Button and cremini are EARTHY, like damp earth. If you don't like that flavor, I understand. But milder and meatier mushrooms exist! Enter oyster and lion's mane mushrooms. They are radically different--meaty and tender, with a juiciness when cooked that's quite different from the slippery texture of button or portobellos. Their flavor is more savory, leaning nutty and roasty.
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Rounding out the meal: Garnishes bring it home
From what I have read, it seems that mussakhan is generally unadorned, although it may be served with salad and the ever-present (and delicious) drizzle of yogurt. The garnishes I recommend in this recipe are completely optional, but to me the dish cries out for them so clearly that I can never resist. (To be fair, the siren call of fresh herbs and pickled onions is hard to ignore no matter what your main flavors are.)
More tang, more zip:
Sumac is tangy and bright, but I really love leaning into the addictive contrast of umami and acidity. My favorite additions are pickled red onion (which also adds a little extra crunch) and yogurt (which also adds creaminess). Pickled cucumbers or other pickled veggies would also be delicious.
A forest of fresh herbs:
Parsley, mint, cilantro, and dill are all winners. I'll use all of them if available, but at least one is a must. They all add a vibrant green flavor that invigorates the deep savoriness of the mushrooms, while also playing off the moodier brightness of the sumac.
Extra juiciness, more crunch:
The juiciness of chopped tomatoes is one of my favorite toppings, but the refreshing crunch of chopped cucumbers is also fabulous. The raw veggies help balance the rich, almost stewed flavors of the sumac mushrooms.
Combine it all together!
Sometimes I'll take the time to actually make a chopped side salad with a few or all of the above, like a tomato-herb salad or vinegary cucumber salad. You could also make a classic diced tomato-cucumber salad, using pretty much every topping listed above (except the yogurt, unless you want a creamy salad!).
Serve with Bread:
Nothing beats fresh, homemade bread. I've been using this King Arthur recipe, and highly recommend it. If you go with store bought, both pita and naan work. I actually prefer naan, since it's a bit softer and more pillowy.
Notes for Success:
When picking oyster mushrooms, look for clumps that have smooth "petals," rather than dried out or split edges. If your mushrooms are a bit older and starting to dry, make sure to trim off the driest parts-- they will stay tough even after cooking. Lion's Mane mushrooms should be firm and evenly colored. Try to avoid the ones that are starting to dry out and shrivel. As with the oyster mushrooms, trim off any parts that have dried and turned hard.
Tearing mushrooms is easy, and results in a very satisfying, meaty texture. Simply imagine that you are peeling strips off the same way you might peel pieces of string cheese. You should end up with a tousled mess of shreds varying in size. Your main goal is to make everything bite-sized, so it's easier to eat wrapped in flatbread (should you so choose).
Optional bouillon: For a bit of extra meaty flavor and umami depth, I like to sprinkle in a pinch of powdered veggie bouillon. My preference tends to be versions that aim to mimic "chicken" flavor, because they tend to rely less heavily on carrot (which I find too sweet) and mushroom (which, as we've discussed, can be too "damp earth," depending on the type used). Use your favorite here. Or, if you're not vegetarian, use your favorite meat-based bouillon.
Pine nuts are pricey. Their tender, slightly crunchy, yet slightly buttery flavor and texture is phenomenal in this dish, so if you can keep them in and just use as much as you are comfortable with. Alternatively, sub toasted slivered almonds. They will be firmer and crunchier, but the texture and shape of slivered almonds (vs sliced or whole chopped) works in similar ways to the pine nuts.
Recipe: Mussakhan-Inspired Sumac Mushrooms
- 4-6 ounces oyster and/or lion's mane mushrooms, trimmed and torn into bite-sized shreds, See Note
- Kosher salt and black pepper
- 2 tablespoons neutral oil, such as peanut or safflower oil
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, For cooking
- 1 large yellow onion, halved and thinly sliced
- ½ cup toasted pine nuts, divided
- 4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- 3 tablespoons ground sumac
- 2 teaspoons sweet paprika
- ¼ teaspoons allspice
- ¼ teaspoons cumin
- ¾ teaspoons vegetarian chicken bouillon, optional, Powdered or paste
- ¾ cups water
- Fresh mint, cilantro, and dill
- Warmed pita, or other flatbread
- Extra virgin olive oil, The best quality you have on hand
- Pickled red onion
- Chopped tomatoes and/or cucumbers
- Step 1Tear your mushrooms into bite-sized shreds.In a large Dutch oven or straight-sided skillet, heat the neutral oil over medium-high until just barely smoking. Add the mushrooms in a single layer, working in batches if necessary, and cook without disturbing until well-browned, 2 to 3 minutes. Give them a quick stir and let them cook about 1 minute more. Transfer to a bowl and toss with a pinch of salt. If working in batches, repeat with the remaining mushrooms.
- Step 2Over medium heat in the same pan, heat the olive oil until shimmering. Add the onion and cook, stirring often, until slightly softened, 3 to 5 minutes.
- Step 3While the onions cook, chop ¼ cup of the pine nuts. When the onions have softened, add the chopped pine nuts, garlic, sumac, paprika, cumin, allspice, ½ teaspoon salt, and the bouillon (if using). Cook, stirring, just until fragrant, 30 to 60 seconds. Stir in the water, then increase heat to high and bring to a low simmer. Return the mushrooms and any accumulated juices to the pan, cover, and reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer until the mushrooms are tender but still toothsome and the flavors have melded together, 10 to 15 minutes.
- Step 4Remove the lid and continue to cook until the liquid is mostly reduced and thickened, just a few more minutes. It should coat the mushrooms lightly. Stir in the remaining pine nuts. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.