A red sumac plant surrounded by green leaves

What Is Sumac?

Get to know the vibrant ingredient of sumac spice, often found in Middle Eastern cuisine

Get to know sumac as a versatile culinary component you definitely want to have in your arsenal.

You have probably encountered sumac, even if you didn’t know what it was, as a bright fuchsia garnish with earthy and citrusy flavors often used in Middle Eastern foods from a variety of countries.

Prior to any of my own exposure to Middle Eastern, and particularly Lebanese food, my association with the word “sumac” was inextricably linked with the word “poison,” and was regarded as something to be avoided on nature walks.

Ethan Frisch, founder of the single-origin spice company Burlap & Barrel reassures that culinary sumac is not the same.

“It’s a totally different plant,” he says. “The genus has many different species. Some North American varieties are poisonous, but not so in the Middle East.”

Indeed, and somewhat ironically, even in North America, sumac was often used by Native Americans for medicinal purposes. Given its riotous fuschia color, and slight lemony flavor, there is some speculation that sumac might also have been the origin of pink lemonade. 

The popularity of sumac has been on the rise, along with an increasing popularity of Middle Eastern cuisine. With Frisch’s help, here’s a look into the origins, flavors and uses of sumac, and why you should be incorporating its unique personality into a variety of meals.

Related Recipe:Shaved Spring Vegetable Salad with Sumac Vinaigrette

First Thing’s First: What Is Sumac?

Sumac, as it’s used in a culinary context, is the berry part of a sumac tree or shrub, of which there are about 35 species deriving from the genus Rhus. Berries from some of those species can cause skin irritation, so my nature walk recollection wasn’t entirely flawed. In any case, it's best to leave the harvesting to the experts. 

It's the “dried, ground up fruit” that creates sumac seasoning as we know it, Frisch explains.

“The fruit itself grows in cones, and the individual berries look like fuzzy red lentils with a pit in each one of them,” he says.

Along with the pits, which have no taste but contribute a little crumbly texture to processed sumac, the dried berries are ground using a granite wheel with a little salt and water to aid in the process, Frisch explains.

The resulting sumac-based paste is then typically sun- or heat-dried, though Frisch utilizes a curing method for Burlap & Barrel which results in a somewhat shorter shelf life for the sumac seasoning, but leads to a more robust, flavorful product. The result of the curing process is a sumac powder that has a larger grain than one expects with most ground spices, with a trace of moisture and an unmistakable magenta hue.

What Does Sumac Taste Like?

“Sumac is tart and fruity but it also has kind of an iron tang, or a savory back note,” Frisch says.

He notes that it also shares characteristics beyond just its color with another citrusy, fuchsia plant: hibiscus.

“It does taste like hibiscus in a lot of ways,” Frisch says, “but hibiscus is sweeter, and sumac has almost a metallic character to it that makes it savory.”

How is Sumac Typically Used?

Sumac spice is commonplace in places such as Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey.

“It’s pretty much on the table in the way we have salt and pepper on the table,” Frisch says. 

As a garnish, it adds not only sumac flavor but also vibrant color to dishes like hummus and baba ganoush. It can be used to marinate meats, and used to add a pop of tang anywhere you’d add lemon juice, and is friendly with grain and vegetable salads alike.

Like many vibrantly colored foods, there are also plenty of sumac health benefits. The spice is believed to help regulate blood sugar, improve heart health and help with muscle pain. 

Two classic Middle Eastern dishes involving sumac are fattoush salad, a combination between a lettuce salad and a bread salad with the inclusion of toasted pita bread, and musakhan, a Lebanese stewed chicken dish.

Beyond those two dishes, however, its uses are extremely broad, and sumac is used in pastry preparations as well as savory ones, transforms in flavor when toasted and is even used for cocktails or as the basis of tea.

Related Recipe:Cured Sumac Plum Cobbler

Once you get to know it, you’ll always be able to spot it, not only because of its attention-grabbing color, but its personality.

“That sumac tartness is unmistakable,” Frisch says.

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