Chef Cassie Piuma’s goal at Sarma is to make the familiar new by infusing Middle Eastern flavors and techniques into dishes where you don’t expect them.
“I have a passion and love for those flavors,” Piuma says. “I want to take those flavors and make them approachable and comfortable for people who are unfamiliar with them, make them reminiscent of things they understand and know.”
For instance, her Armenian cheesesteak sandwich takes Philadelphia’s official food and replaces the traditional shaved beef with sujuk, an Armenian sausage with tons of cumin and paprika. She serves it on a house-made pita torpedo topped with shredded lettuce, hot pepper pickles, string cheese, and garlic mayonnaise. Does it work? Well, her husband and his family are from Philly and they’ve given it their approval.
Piuma’s favorite Middle Eastern gateway spice is sumac, which she says is both approachable and interesting. “At its core, it has this bright, citrusy, almost lemony quality to it. It freshens food up, makes it light, very rich, and kind of brings this effervescence. I think it embodies Turkish and Middle Eastern food.”
You’ll find that kind of fusion approach in the shishito peppers, which are blistered and layered with halloumi (a brined sheep’s milk cheese) and served on a tomatillo tabouleh with spicy tahini and toasted pepitas. She describes the dish as “Mexican flair, Turkish technique.” Then there’s the lamb loin chops with their kalamata olive tapenade and whipped feta butter, served with broiled figs drizzled with smoked honey. Or the halibut dolmades, the fish wrapped in savoy cabbage leaves along with wild Greek spices, ginger, and puffed rice, then floated in a broth of miso, chicken stock, and eggs.
Piuma says that Sarma has always been a community-driven restaurant, and that her goal is for people to “feel at ease, feel at home, and walk out the door feeling better than they did when they came in.” Job well done, chef.