What Is Sumac, and How Should You Use This Vibrant Spice?
Plus, what made it so popular all of a sudden?
Sumac, the tart, dark red spice long associated with Middle Eastern cuisine, is experiencing a twenty-first century boost in vitality. This ancient food's spike in popularity is due in large part to bestselling cookbook author Yotam Ottolenghi, whose bold recipes demand a lot of the home cook's spice collection. Ottolenghi's work has encouraged cooks far beyond the Middle East to clamor for flavors that have typically remained close to the eastern Mediterranean and western Asia as part of their everyday fare. Sumac (closely followed by Persian limes) leads the pack of ingredients that have hitherto been hard to find beyond their home range. But accompanied by social media posts and hashtags, the demand for sumac is edging it towards inclusion on the standard American supermarket spice shelf.
The word sumac is derived from the Arabic summãq, meaning red. And sumac is the common name for shrubs belonging to the Rhus genus; they bear fruit in clusters of orange to russet, and their leaves turn vividly scarlet in fall. The spice we see in brick and mortar specialty stores and online is usually imported and derived from a Mediterranean sumac species, Rhus coriaria. In late summer, it produces small clusters of burgundy fruit made up of many tiny, sour drupes (fruits containing a single seed), each about the size of a lentil. The outer red covering of the drupes is wildly tart, due to its malic and citric acid content, while the hard seed inside is virtually tasteless. Ground up, that tartness is the coveted property that makes sumac very appealing in a wide variety of drinks and dishes.
In Middle Eastern dishes sumac is often used as a final, uncooked flourish. It has strong antioxidant and antimicrobial properties and its last-minute addition may have evolved to help combat bacteria present in foods. The best known delivery system for sumac is perhaps the spice mix za'atar, where assertive summer savory (or thyme, or oregano) and nutty sesame round out sumac's mouth-watering acidity. Sumac brightens a rich dip like hummus, or a paste of pounded walnuts and garlic, or lifts a salad of chopped tomatoes and cucumbers. Parsley leaves tossed with raw onion and dusted with sumac are a perfect antidote to fatty grilled meats. Even on already-tangy yogurt, sumac adds a mellow layer of extra acerbity. Sumac's lemony backbone makes it highly versatile, and it is an excellent finish for roasted and grilled meats, as well as strongly flavored fish like mackerel. When used in dry heat cooking sumac is best added late in the cooking process, but in moist heat (think slow winter stews), the flavor holds up very well and it can be added earlier. Sumac stirred into water and strained makes a refreshingly acerbic pink drink. It's a wonderful mixer for cocktails and makes a wonderful non-alcoholic spritz, like this Sumac-Mint Fizz.
Grinding and drying sumac with a small amount of salt is the traditional way of preserving the spice in the Middle East. The sumac sold by Burlap & Barrel comes from Gaziantep in Turkey, and is stone ground for 12 to 20 hours with about one percent of its weight in salt. Ethan Frisch, owner of Burlap & Barrel, explains that this process gives the sumac "a chewier, more interesting texture." (Sumac that is dried without salt is lemony without that deeper complexity; not a bad thing, just different. I have used—and like—both, but prefer uncured spice for drink-mixing.)
While sumac as a spice remains associated with the Middle East, North America is in fact home to several deliciously edible species. Native Americans have long been using these sumacs, whose sour flavor is also a boon to foragers. Fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica), staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), smooth sumac (Rhus glabra), and winged sumac (Rhus coppalinum) ripen in sequence from midsummer through early fall and are ready to collect when they are red to brown in color (depending on species) and very acidic on the tongue. It's always a good idea to taste before you collect any, as hard rains can wash the sharp oils away (they build up again after a few days). In my book Forage, Harvest, Feast–A Wild-Inspired Cuisine, there is a chapter dedicated to recipes for these sumacs, including how to make the ground spice.
Small scale producers are beginning to make native American sumacs available to consumers. Commercial forager Tama Matsuoka Wong sells a refreshing sumac tea called I am a Weed through Fresh Direct. Based on traditional North American sumac-ade, where ripe sumac heads are steeped in water and strained, the tea is restorative and thirst quenching. She also sells her 2019 harvest of ground sumac (she dries and grinds staghorn sumac) via Fresh Direct.
People who have severe allergies to mango or cashew may not react well to sumac, as it belongs so the same family, Anacardiaceae (along with poison ivy and poison sumac). Worried about poison sumac? That is the shrub Toxicodendron vernix, whose fruit is white when ripe. Edible sumac ranges from orange to deep burgundy red.