Pucker up: Sour is one of the five essential tastes in food. We’re not talking about Sour Patch Kids and Lemon Drops, though. The best cooks know how to deploy tartness to create a vivid balance in final dishes, squeezing lemon to offset the richness of a roasted chicken or drizzling cider vinegar against the sweetness of beets. These days, we’re looking for our punch in another acidic ingredient: sumac. A dark red spice used in Middle Eastern and North African cooking, there’s more and more sumac popping up in recipes and on menus, thanks to a growing appreciation of those regional cuisines.
Sumac powder begins as clusters of berries growing on a sumac shrub, a plant that’s related not only to mango and cashew, but also to poison ivy! (Don’t worry, though: As long as they’re red, sumac berries are perfectly safe.) Once picked and dried, the berries get ground up to make a culinary spice with a citrusy flavor, fruity notes, and a backdrop of pine—the latter a delicious reminder that this plant thrives in the wild, along streams and fences.
Here’s how sumac appears in the kitchen, and why we love to keep it in our arsenal.
A tangy taste
Middle Eastern cuisine features several tangy ingredients prominently. In addition to sumac, you’ll taste a lot of yogurt, barberries, dried limes, and pomegranate molasses. Whether or not you adore sourness as a rule, you’ll notice that food seasoned with sumac has a roundness, a brightness, and an oomph it may have been lacking before. Sumac’s complexity makes lemon seem kind of one-note and can give a dish that unnamable quality that just makes you crave it.
Some quintessential Middle Eastern uses of sumac are fattoush (pita bread salad), za’atar (the mix of thyme, sesame seeds, and sumac that’s used, like plain sumac, as a garnish), and lahmacun (an Armenian pizza). It also shows up on top of plain rice, yogurt, and potatoes.
Expand on those standbys by dusting sumac on roasted or steamed vegetables, as in this Creamy Quinoa Grits with Roasted Sumac Squash.
A gorgeous garnish
We eat with our eyes as well as our taste buds, and sumac lends a brilliant ruby hue to all the food it tops. In Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, and Syria, you’ll see sumac used at the end of cooking, sprinkled on meats, vegetables, dips like hummus, and breads. At Middle Eastern restaurants and some homes, cooks even provide sumac at the table like salt and pepper, so that eaters can season their food just right. Only instead of saltiness or spice, they’re adding tanginess to taste.
A philosophical spice
Persian cooking relies on a similar core of tradition to Ayurvedic Indian philosophies, or even ancient Eastern eating practices, where foods are thought to do more for the body than simply fill up the stomach. Pairing ingredients in particular ways can nourish, energize, relax, or heal the body. Louisa Shafia, author of The New Persian Kitchen, explains how sumac fits into this philosophy in an interview with KQED.
“Take a kebab sprinkled with sumac and served with rice, raw onion, and a yogurt drink. Onions have antibacterial properties and sumac and yogurt aid in digestion. So the ingredients are selected to help the body digest hunks of rich protein. Here, meat and onions would be considered “hot” and sumac, yogurt, and rice are classified as ‘cold.'”
Among sumac’s health benefits is the fact that it’s a diuretic, which means it can carry toxins out of your body.
A pink drink
Believe it or not, sumac is not just a Middle Eastern import. The shrub grows wild in the United States, especially the northeastern part, and ripens in August and September. Native Americans long made use of every part of the plant, from the berries to the twigs.
If you ever have access to a sumac bush you’re sure is safe to eat, simply pluck the cones when they’re at their ripest red. You might also see dried sumac berries at Middle Eastern groceries. To make a tart tea, pour hot (not boiling) water over a few tablespoons of the berries and steep for a few minutes. Strain through cheesecloth before drinking. You can enjoy this hot or cold or mulled with cinnamon, orange peel, and honey. You can also use sumac as cooking liquid in place of the called-for broth in a Middle Eastern recipe that needs some extra tartness.
Beyond the kitchen
Sumac can also be used as a natural dye. Different parts of the plant yield different colors, including yellow, orange, red and back. Beekeepers salvaged the dried cones, emptied of berries, for honey. Meanwhile, Native Americans used two parts of the plant for smoking: the leaves to mix in with tobacco and the stems as pipes. So, in case it’s ever useful to your life, you can always repurpose the stems of the shrub as pipes!
Ready to give sumac a try? Check out our Sumac Salmon with Roasted Kohlrabi and Tomato Vinaigrette—now on the menu!