What is sumac?


It seems like Middle Eastern food is becoming more popular by the minute. As people focus on the cuisine of the region, they will undoubtedly encounter a few spices and herbs that are unfamiliar to them. One of the newer (to Western palates) spices to emerge recently is sumac. Let's take a quick look at this versatile spice. 

Sumac (botanical name Rhus coriaria) is a shrub native to the Mediterranean and its culinary applications date back centuries. Although there are varieties of sumac that grow in North America, some of these plants are poisonous, so don't attempt to pick your own unless you know which varieties are edible. The sumac you find in spice stores most often comes from Turkey and other locations in the Middle East. The berries of the plant resemble peppercorns, and are the parts used in cooking. They turn a deep red, sometimes bordering on purple, as they ripen. Although you can sometimes find whole berries, usually what you will encounter is the coarsely ground powdered version, like that pictured above.

So what does sumac taste like? According to Padma Lakshmi's The Encyclopedia of Spices and Herbs, sumac "has a clean, fruity fragrance and tart, fruity, astrigent flavor, with a citrus tang but without the sharpness of lemon juice." In some cuisines, sumac is passed around the table like salt, to be sprinkled on food as a garnish and flavor enhancer. Sumac is frequently used to flavor meats, but is equally at home when used with vegetables and grains and even desserts. It is a major ingredient in the spice blend za'atar. Chef Sharon Hage, in The Flavor Bible, says she relies on sumac in her kitchen. She loves it because "it is a good way to add another layer of tartness without having to add liquid...Sumac works well with chicken, vegetables, and salads, as well as in a vinaigrette or with cheese you might marinate like feta."

To get some ideas of how to use sumac, browse the most popular recipes in the EYB Library that use sumac, including these Member favorites:

Turmeric chicken with sumac and lime from The New Persian Kitchen by Louisa Shafia
Braised eggs with lamb, tahini & sumac from Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi
Tomato salad with pomegranate molasses (Gavurdagi salatasi) from Persiana by Sabrina Ghayour
Sesame-spiced turkey meatballs and smashed chickpea salad from The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook by Deb Perelman 
Strawberry, pomegranate, and rose petal mess from Bon Appetit Magazine by Yotam Ottolenghi


  • Paula_W  on  4/16/2017 at 8:18 AM

    Thanks. Haven't tried one of the sumac recipes yet (better half had surgery so we're keeping things simple for now). But can't wait

  • FaithB  on  4/16/2017 at 2:02 PM

    Being Armenian, I grew up with this spice which I still use today. Nice to see it featured!

  • JColonna  on  4/20/2017 at 7:12 AM

    I need to look this out as it sounds fascinating. Wonder if I could use this as a macaron flavour and use it in patisserie? Of course, can't wait to taste it first! Thanks for the fascinating info.

  • luccio  on  4/28/2017 at 1:22 PM

    LOVE sumac, 'discovered' it thanks to Yotam Ottolenghi & Shakshukah...

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