(Editor’s note: According to The Plant Encyclopedia, the name Sumac can apply to any one of 250 species of flowering plants in the genus Rhus, in the family Anacardiaceae. Sumacs grow in subtropical and temperate regions throughout the world, especially in Africa and North America. This article puts the spotlight on a genus of Sumac, known as Rhus coriaria, that grows in the Mediterranean basin.)
Sumac, also spelled sumach or sumak (derived from the Arabic summaq), may be one of the last of the great condiments still to be discovered by Western chefs. Yet this tangy and sour seasoning is as indispensable to modern Middle Eastern cuisine as it was to the kitchens of the Sumerians and ancient Egyptians. Today, in the spice markets of the Middle East, sumac is everywhere as it has been since antiquity.
Two Popular Species of Sumac
When the Arabs occupied the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th century A.D., they brought with them sumac and other spices from the East. Strangely, however, even though many of these spices became part of the European kitchen, sumac never took hold in Western lands. Perhaps it was the fear of the poisonous species – identifiable by their white berries – of the sumac tree that slowed popularity of sumac amongst European cooks. Among the more than 250 genera of sumac, there are a good number that are poisonous, and others produce fruit which is not edible.
In North America, the most valued species of sumac is the Staghorn variety (Rhus typhina). Although not used for food, a delicious lemonade-like beverage can be made from the Staghorn’s berry-like fruit which has numerous medicinal properties. The tree grows wild from the west coast to the east across Canada. In the autumn, sumach’s brilliantly coloured leaves and clusters of red berries beautify many gardens and make picturesque the roadside scenery. Their colours are so vivid that they have inspired poets; the Canadian poet Bliss Carman wrote:
The deep red cones of the sumac
And the woodbine’s crimson sprays
Have bannered the common roadside
For the pageant of passing days.
Native to the Mediterranean basin, the Rhus coriaria species of sumac grows in the warmer, temperate regions of the globe. In most of the Mediterranean countries the bark, leaves, and roots of this genus are used for tanning leather and in the production of dyes, lacquers, medicines, and wax. Only in the countries of the Middle East does the fruit become a condiment.
The Rhus coriaria bush that produces this tasty condiment is a low growing shrub, thriving in the sandy/stony and well-drained plateaus of semi-arid lands. It produces attractive crimson berry-like fruit in conical clusters, two to three inches wide. In the autumn, these cones of small reddish fruit that appear like flowers, and their brightly coloured leaves, make the sumac tree highly ornamental.
The berries are gathered a bit before maturity, dried in the sun, then crushed to remove the seed. The dried fruit pulp is then pulverized to make the brick-red sumac seasoning.
As for its health attributes, sumac has diuretic properties that aid in the production of urine. It is also used to treat inflammation of the bladder and painful urination. In the Middle East, a sour drink is made from sumac to help ease upset stomach. Generally speaking, sumac’s health properties are anti-microbial, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory. Even the first century A.D. physician and botanist, Dioscorides, mentioned it in his writings.
This condiment, with its tart lemony flavour, is a favourite spice of Middle Eastern households. As a seasoning, it lends a tart taste to barbecues, savoury pies, fish, salads, sauces, dips, stews, stuffings and vegetables. In the eastern Arab countries and adjoining lands, it is also mixed extensively with onions and salt as a savoury spice for roasts. Arab gourmet cooks are convinced there is no substitute for this tangy condiment, as the recipes below will prove.
In the Canadian marketplace, look for sumac in Middle Eastern stores or in the international section of larger supermarkets.
Sumac is an important ingredient in this dish that is used to season other foods. As flavouring, it gives bread, olives, and yogurt an exquisite taste. Za’tar is found mixed and ready for use in almost all Middle Eastern markets located in every large city in North America. If it cannot be found, this simple recipe can be used to create your own.
- 1 cup dry and pulverized thyme leaves
- 1 cup dried sumac fruit
- 1/4 cup finely pulverized unsalted roasted chickpeas
- 3 Tbsp sesame seed, toasted
- 1 Tbsp marjoram
- 2 tsp salt
This salad is best eaten right away and, although popular as a side salad, it works well as a meal on its own.
(Serves 4 to 6)
- 2 medium cucumbers (about 6 to 7 inches long), quartered lengthwise and thinly sliced
- 1 large tomato, quartered and sliced to 1/4 inch thickness
- 1 medium sweet onion, cut in half and very thinly sliced
- 3 Tbsp olive oil
- 2 Tbsp dried sumac fruit
- 3/4 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp black pepper
Easy and quick to prepare, this is a flavourful and smooth dip with an extra tart taste of sumac. It can also be drizzled over baked potatoes, adding a great tang to an otherwise boring vegetable. (Serves 4)
- 1–1/2 pounds zucchini, grilled whole until soft inside and lightly charred on the exterior
- 1/4 cup tahini
- 3 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
- 2 garlic cloves, crushed
- 3 tsp dried sumac fruit
- 2 Tbsp olive oil
Although rolling grape leaves is a tedious task, the end justifies the means. These are heavenly. (Serves about 6)
- 1 cup brown or green lentils, soaked overnight and drained
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 2 Tbsp dried sumac fruit
- 1 cup uncooked rice, rinsed
- 1 cup finely chopped mint leaves
- 1 bunch green onions, finely chopped
- 4 Tbsp finely chopped fresh coriander leaves
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp cumin
- 1/2 tsp black pepper
- 1/2 tsp allspice
- 1/4 tsp cayenne
- 1 jar grape leaves (16 oz), drained and thoroughly washed
- 1-1/2 cups tomato juice
 The Plant Encyclopedia http://www.theplantencyclopedia.org
 Ed Note: for more on this, see Michael Vertolli’s article ‘Staghorn Sumac Heals Inflammation and Boosts Circulation’: http://vitalitymagazine.com/article/staghorn-sumac