I grew up eating sumac, though for most of my life I had no idea what the burgundy powder was called or just how powerful it can be. If there was a Middle Eastern dish on the table (which most nights, there was), it was almost always finished with sumac. My mom sprinkled it on everything from hummus to babaganoush, and it served as a colorful ingredient in a number of meat-based dishes. I ate it with gusto while simultaneously being oblivious to how essential the flavor was to whatever I was eating.
While sumac used to be an ingredient mostly unknown to a majority of Americans, it has since grown significantly in popularity. Its bright, tart flavor is an essential component of many Middle Eastern and Mediterranean dishes, but it’s a versatile spice that can be used in a range of dishes and cooking styles.
The use of sumac goes back thousands of years, with foundations in both Levantine and Native American cuisines. To help us learn more about sumac—including what it is, where it comes from, and how to use it—we talked to Alyse Baca, culinary director at Spicewalla, Reem Assil, chef and founder of Reem’s California in San Francisco, Manal Nasan, founder of the spice company Re7het Falasteen, and author and agroecologist Gary Nabhan.
What is Sumac?
Sumac is a small, fuzzy drupe that grows in clusters on trees in the genus Rhus, which comes from the Anacardiaceae family—the same family as pistachios, cashews, mangoes, and mastic (a resin used in Greek, Turkish, and other Mediterranean foods). Sumac trees grow in the Mediterranean, Africa, Asia, and all over North America (there are even sumac trees in places like Central Park in New York City). However, sumac plants that yield white berries, or have red stems and shorter leaves are considered poisonous.
The name comes from the Arabic word “summaq,” which translates to “red.” Because various species of sumac are native to more than one continent, its exact origins are difficult to establish. Sources claim origins in Sicily, Turkey, and Iran, for example, and that’s without acknowledging the separate story of North American species. “It’s not really uncommon for a set of plants to rib the Mediterranean in the mountainous areas and then extend into the mountains further east,” says Nabhan, whose work focuses on links between biodiversity and cultural diversity.
The fruit was used in both ancient and medieval Europe and around the Mediterranean not only as a spice, but as a dye and for medicinal purposes. The Romans also relied on sumac as a source of tanginess before lemons found their way into Europe. “There weren’t lemons very early on in Europe, so sumac was a primary way to season most meats, fish, and vegetables with a sweet, sour, and tangy flavor,” says Nabhan.
Indigenous peoples in North America also used sumac to treat ailments, as well as to make a refreshing sumac “lemonade.” “In English, [it’s known as] the lemonade berry,” notes Nabhan of some species of the plant. He explains that sumac plants have been growing in North America for thousands of years, and although they are a different species from those found in the Mediterranean, their profiles are similar. Today, however, most commercially sold sumac has been imported from the Middle East.
Sumac is harvested, sun-dried, and can be purchased whole, but is more often sold ground as a seasoning. Ground sumac is made by grinding the fruit—either using a machine or the more traditional method of stone-grinding—to a coarse, deep red powder.
Manal Nasan, who is familiar with sumac harvesting in Palestine, notes that some farmers mix their ground sumac with just a little bit of wheat flour to tame the sourness. In Palestine, they have a type of sumac called ballady, which is ground sumac in its purest form. “Ballady means authentic,” says Nasan. She notes that while they do sell both types in Palestine, the ballady version tends to be more expensive.
How to Buy and Store Sumac
While it used to be that you could only find sumac in specialty and Middle Eastern markets, in recent years, it’s more readily available at your everyday grocery store. However, you may still want to head to those specialty markets to make sure you’re getting the best quality product.
Whole sumac can be hard to come by, but you can purchase it online. When shopping for the ground spice, Alyse Baca advises looking for “that signature bright crimson color”—which indicates the berries were harvested at peak ripeness and ground relatively recently—and tasting it, if possible. “It should taste tangy and bright, with a strong floral aroma,” she says. Sumac is typically ground on the coarser side, which she prefers. “I think the coarseness creates a nice texture,” she says, with the larger pieces releasing more flavor as you chew it.
Reem Assil echoes Baca’s notes about color. “That crimson, almost red to purple, eggplanty sumac is the best,” she says. “I don’t want my chicken to look brown, I want it to look bright purple. People eat with their eyes, right?”
Like most spices, sumac should be kept in a cool, dark, and dry place like a cabinet or drawer. Good quality sumac will last up to a year before losing its flavor.
How to Cook With Sumac
In addition to its Native American uses, sumac is often used across the Middle East and the Mediterranean, in places like Turkey and Greece, to season meat and vegetables. It’s a key ingredient in the Palestinian dish of msakhan, giving the onions their color, and is also an important component of za’atar. “It pairs well with anything that could use a little kick of acidity,” says Baca, making it incredibly versatile.
The spice is incredibly useful for adding tang and tartness to dishes without having to also add additional liquid like lemon juice to a dish, which makes it a great option as a flavoring in wetness-prone salads—many containing juicy ingredients like cucumbers and tomatoes—such as fattoush. “Not only does it add this beautiful color to things, but it adds an acidity without having to put a liquid in something,” says Assil.
Along similar lines, it’s an ideal spice to be used as a garnish or finisher—a last little sprinkle for pops of flavor and visual impact. Whenever my mom makes hummus, she serves it in a shallow bowl and garnishes it with a decorative pattern of sumac, pickled cucumber, and olive oil.
Beyond its role as a flavoring agent, there is both anecdotal evidence and some research indicating sumac can be employed as a meat tenderizer, thanks to active enzymes that help break down tough connective tissue like collagen.
While there are plenty of traditional uses for sumac, it never hurts to get creative in the kitchen. Of course you can use it on everything from eggs and French fries to chips and popcorn, but its applications can go even further. “I love using sumac in baking,” says Baca. “The citrusy flavor works beautifully with berries.”
Assil has found yet another unconventional use for sumac by tossing candied pomelo rind in a mix of sumac and sugar to make a sweet-and-sour candied fruit.“I have a love for sour candy,” she says. “It almost takes the place of citric acid in the candied things. And it’s pretty, that hue of red.” Assil notes that sumac is also an excellent accompaniment to pomegranate seeds when tossed with them as a snack or a topping for salads and other dishes.
I can’t think of sumac without thinking about my mom’s home cooking, and that may be why it has so easily found a place in my spice cabinet. But now that I’m cooking in my own kitchen, I’ve learned just how far a sprinkle of sumac can go in almost anything that could use a bright, tart kick—the possibilities are endless.