Tangy, wine-coloured sumac is a Middle Eastern spice made from the dried and ground berries of the sumac bush. With a bright, zesty flavour similar to lemon or lime, this wonderfully fragrant spice can be used to enhance anything from meat and vegetables to spice rubs, salads and dressings.
History and origins
Sumac comes from the berries of the sumac bush, a relative of the cashew that grows wild throughout the Mediterranean and in some parts of the Middle East, most notably Iran. These days it is most commonly associated with Middle Eastern and Arabic cuisine, but in fact it is originally from subtropical Africa and North America.
Sumac has been used by humans for at least 2,000 years. Greek physician Pedanius Dioscorides, who lived from circa 40 - 90 AD, wrote about its supposed diuretic and antiflatulent properties in his revered medical book De Materia Medica, and it has since been used as an antiseptic, a tonic, and even to make lemonade without the lemons! It was also used by indigenous North American peoples to make a drink similar to beer.
These days, sumac is an essential ingredient in Mediterranean, Arabic and Middle Eastern cuisine. It is particularly associated with Lebanese cuisine, and also with Iran, where it is used as a table condiment, like salt and pepper. In these countries, sumac is used in much the same way as other countries might use lemon zest, tamarind or vinegar, to add sourness and astringency to cooking.
Benefits and nutrition facts
There are more than 200 species of sumac plant, but the variety most commonly used in cooking is the Rhus coriaria, or Syrian sumac. The exact nutrient profile of sumac is not known, but research suggests that it does contain various beneficial compounds.
Sumac contains healthy fats known as oleic acid, which is thought to promote heart health, and linoleic acid, that helps maintain healthy skin and cell membranes. It is also believed to be a good source of fibre, which can help maintain a healthy digestive system.
Sumac is high in antioxidants, including tannins, anthocyanins, and flavonoids. These beneficial compounds can help prevent oxidative damage to your cells, and may also help prevent diseases caused by inflammation, such as heart disease and cancer.
There is also some evidence to suggest that sumac can help regulate blood sugar in type 2 diabetes sufferers. A 2014 study found that participants given a daily dose of sumac had significantly improved blood sugar after 3 months, while a similar study suggests that sumac increases insulin sensitivity. More research is needed to determine whether sumac can be successfully incorporated into diabetes management.
It is important to be aware that many species of sumac are not edible. In fact, many are poisonous, and can cause a nasty rash, similar to a poison ivy rash, if they come into contact with the skin. These species are often referred to as ‘poison sumac’ and should not be ingested under any circumstances. It is not advisable to forage for sumac berries, as there is a risk of confusing edible sumac with poison sumac.
What does it taste like?
Sumac is most often compared to lemon, due to its tart, tangy flavour, but it also has milder fruity berry notes that balance out the acidity. There is also a hint of earthiness and a texture similar to fine coffee grounds.
How to use it for cooking
Sumac is traditionally used in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine. It pairs well with many traditional Middle Eastern dishes, like fattoush salad or hummus, and is also a key ingredient in the spice mix za’atar.
With its citrusy flavour, it can also be used as a replacement or a dupe for lemon juice. This is especially useful if your recipe would benefit from citrus flavour but not from the extra liquid - spice rubs, for example. It can also be used to flavour salads, dressings, marinades, fish and chicken, and it’s acidic flavour makes it particularly good for cutting through fatty meats.
Sumac is a versatile spice, and can be used either as a main flavour, or to play a complementary supporting role to other flavours. As well as adding flavour to food, it’s deep red colour makes it an attractive garnish, and it can be used for both taste and appearance in much the same way as we might use paprika.
When using sumac in your food, remember that it will lose some flavour if you cook it, and for best results it should be sprinkled over your dish at the last minute. If your recipe involves cooking the sumac into the dish, you may want to add a little extra before serving. Another thing to consider is that most dried sumac contains added salt, so consider reducing the amount of salt in your dish accordingly.
To store sumac, keep it in an airtight container, out of direct sunlight. Stored correctly, it can last for several months, although the intensity of flavour will fade over time.
Recipes with sumac
If you want to try this tangy, fruity spice for yourself, we’ve collected some recipes we think you’ll love.
Sumac and olive oil-roasted salmon with spiced carrot salad:
This delicious supper from Olive magazine is rich with Middle Eastern flavours, and takes just 40 minutes to prepare. Tangy sumac pairs beautifully with oily fish like salmon, and the sweet, spicy carrot and chickpea salad makes a healthy but flavourful accompaniment.
Sumac chicken and green bean salad:
For a Middle Eastern take on lemon chicken, try this simple and delicious dish from Olive magazine. Ready in just 20 minutes, and with less than 300 calories per serving, this is the perfect light lunch or quick weekday dinner.
Sumac roast cauliflower and chicken salad with mint yogurt:
Another healthy but flavourful recipe from Olive magazine, this dish also comes in at less than 300 calories. With the tastebud-tantalising combination of fresh mint and tangy sumac, salads need never be boring again!
Feta with Sumac and Black Sesame Seeds:
This simple feta dish from Bon Appetit is seasoned to perfection, and tastes great served with olives.
Chanterelle bruschetta with sumac mayonnaise:
Designed by chef Cliodnha Prendergast, this dish uses simple ingredients and perfectly-balanced flavours to create a vegetarian appetiser with a gourmet twist.
Discover more about Middle Eastern flavours with this simple guide to our favourite three Middle Eastern spices.