The Sour Power of Sumac

Discover why this ready-to-forage fruit has long been a staple in kitchens and pantries around the world.

| July/August 2020

Getty Images/Gregory_DUBUS

In nature, one man’s pest is another man’s pearl. Dandelions are often considered pesky weeds; nettles seem a most unlikely side dish; and sumac may look like just another roadside shrub. To the resourceful, however, all of these plants are desirable not only as food, but also as medicine.

Cooks from many countries, including Turkey, Italy, and Israel, have revered sumac berries (Rhus spp.) for more than a thousand years. And yet, the fruits are hardly something from which to make a meal or snack; they’re smaller than gooseberries, contain almost as much pit as fruit, and have very little fragrance. They aren’t even sweet! What sumac berries do have going for them is a brilliant brick-red to purple-burgundy color, a tart and tangy taste, and a bushel full of therapeutic applications.

Sumac as a Seasoning

Prior to the importation of lemons in Europe, ancient Romans allegedly relied on sumac berries for sour flavors. Throughout the Middle East, even today, many people use sumac as a seasoning, the primary souring agent in cooking, or as a decorative garnish. The berries are commonly dried, then lightly dry-roasted, ground to a powder, and sifted to remove the hard, inedible seeds and soft, downy fuzz. Other times, the fresh berries are soaked in water for 15 to 20 minutes, or entire seed heads (with attached fuzz) are pounded in water, and then drained and squeezed through cheesecloth to extract their ruby juices and antioxidants. While the sour powder keeps at room temperature, the juice should be refrigerated or frozen.

Photo by Adobe Stock/ArchonCodex

Ground sumac may be rubbed onto meat kabobs prior to grilling, or sprinkled over raw onions, casseroles, or cooked vegetables. Za’atar, a blend of ground sumac, thyme, sesame seeds, and other spices, is used to flavor labneh — a cream-cheese-like spread made from drained yogurt. It may also be sprinkled over meat and vegetables, or blended with oil and smeared on bread as in Turkey and North Africa. Stirred into yogurt, sumac makes a piquant sauce for lamb kabobs.

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