When many Americans hear the word “sumac,” the next word that comes to mind is “poison”: A leafy shrub with white berries, poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) causes itchy rashes. But there’s another sumac that’s been known across much of the world for centuries, and this one only tickles taste buds.
Sumac is one of the tastiest and most used souring agents in the Middle East, with a deliciously tart, tangy flavor similar to, but not as strong as, lemon juice. It is made from the dried berries of the sumac bush (Rhus coriaria)—sometimes called Sicilian sumac—and is a native of the Eastern Mediterranean, the Caucasus, and Iran; other varieties are found in Asia, the Pacific, and North America. The word sumac derives from the Aramaic summaq, meaning “dark red,” although the exact color of sumac can vary from bright red to deep burgundy according to the season and where it is grown.
Sumac berries may be dried and used whole, soaked, or ground into a coarse powder that is used to flavor all kinds of breads, rice pilafs, salad dressings, dips, soups, beans, and vegetable dishes. In southern Anatolia, sumac berries are traditionally used to make a kind of cordial or pink lemonade or a refreshing tea. Sumac is widely used in Iran, Armenia, Syria, and Lebanon, as well as modern-day Israel, where it is sprinkled on everything from fried eggs, fish, poultry, and kebabs to falafel, hummus, and yogurt.
Even people who don’t think they’ve tried sumac probably have, if they’ve eaten Middle Eastern food: Sumac is one of the main ingredients of za’atar—a spice mix made with toasted sesame seeds, sumac, thyme, and oregano that has been used in the region since biblical times. Za’atar can be added to yogurt to make a quick, easy-to-prepare sauce. It also makes a delicious dip when combined with labneh (yogurt cheese) or mashed feta, crushed garlic, extra virgin olive oil, and fresh mint. Za’atar gives a tang to roast chicken, fried fish, baked potatoes, or roast pumpkin, as well as savory pastries and flat breads. It is often used in salad dressings and marinades or sprinkled over all kinds of mezze and dips—especially baba ghanoush (roast eggplant with tahini) and fattoush (the Middle Eastern bread, romaine lettuce, and herb salad). In Israel, za’atar is used to flavor bagels and fatayar—cheese or vegetable turnovers that are much loved by Israelis and Palestinians alike. Another Palestinian dish often made in Israel is musakhan, which consists of flatbreads topped with caramelized onions, toasted pine nuts, sumac, and roast chicken.
Sephardic Jews from Turkey and Bulgaria often sprinkle sumac over piyazi—a white bean salad with chopped red onions, tomato, parsley, green olives, and hardboiled eggs. When combined with pomegranate molasses it gives a lovely sweet-sour twist to a beet and yogurt salad. If you are feeling bold, you can try adding a little sumac to a bloody mary or another cocktail. Its citrus flavor also goes very well with vodka.
If you want to experiment with sumac, try sprinkling it over fish and chips, vegetable fritters, stuffed grape leaves, toasted nuts, or even popcorn. Cubes of fried eggplant combined with diced baby cucumbers, tomatoes, chopped green onions, black olives, and herbs makes a tasty mezze. Yemeni Jews often stuff chicken with a mixture of rice, dried fruit, chopped almonds, walnuts, and sumac, and then roast it in the oven with orange juice. Vegetables—especially eggplant, zucchini, or bell peppers—can be stuffed with a mixture of rice, tomato paste, red pepper paste, herbs, black olives, and chile, then cooked on top of the stove in water flavored with sumac. Or you can prepare a delicious salad with crumbled white cheese or feta, chopped red onions, tomatoes, and finely chopped flat leaf parsley, topped with a simple dressing of extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice, fresh oregano, and sumac.
Sumac does not only have culinary uses. Because of its high levels of tannins, the leaves and bark of the sumac bush have been used for centuries in the leather industry. In fact, its Hebrew name is og ha-bursaka’im, meaning “tanner’s sumac.” Leather tanned with sumac becomes light in both weight and color and notably more flexible. Sumac has also been used in herbal medicine for millennia. The Romans used it as a diuretic and for flatulence. They also used the essential oil of sumac to flavor olive oil and vinegar. According to the Greek physician Pedanius Dioscorides, sumac was astringent, antiseptic, and tonic.
Even today, sumac is appreciated for its many health benefits. it is rich in polyphenols and antioxidants, which are said to neutralize free radicals and may decrease the risk of cancer, liver damage, and heart disease. Sumac is also said to be useful in lowering blood sugar in people with Type 2 diabetes, as well as increasing levels of good cholesterol. Recent studies suggest the antiviral, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant properties of sumac extract may be effective against COVID-19. One word of warning: As sumac is a related to cashews and mangoes, it should be avoided by anyone allergic to these foods.
The potency of sumac can vary from year to year, so you may need to adjust the quantity according to how strong it is. Sometimes salt is added so take care that you don’t oversalt your dishes. Alternatively, you can look for a brand that contains no salt. You should also check the label to see if any artificial coloring has been added—if sumac changes the color of your food to pink, then you can be sure it includes artificial dyes. Sumac is best stored in a tightly sealed jar to prevent it becoming damp, as it can get clumpy. It is readily available in most Middle Eastern stores or in the Middle Eastern section of your local supermarket or health store.