Sumac is a spice often used in Turkish cooking in dishes such as hummus and lahmacun, but is has some other uses as well such as tanning and for medical purposes.
A flowering plant, one of 35 species in the Rhus genus, sumac is grown in temperate and subtropical regions. The flowers of sumac are very small and can be green, red or white; the fruit are small drupes that grow in dense clusters. Sumac seeds are spread by birds from their droppings.
Ornamental use - There are many kinds of sumac and some types, such as the R. aromatica, are grown for ornamental purposes and are great for decorating gardens with an exotic touch.
Cooking - One of the most famous uses for sumac however, is as a spice in Middle Eastern cooking. Rhus coriaria provides the fruit that is ground into a reddish powder that has a lemon-like taste and adds a tangy touch to food. Throughout the Middle East and Central Asia, sumac is used in all sorts of dishes from kebabs to salads.
When used as a spice, sumac is very versatile and easy to use, it adds a delicious flavour to even the most simplest of dishes. Sumac can also be grown in North America where it is used to make a drink called “Indian lemonade” or “rhus juice”.
In comparison to other spices, sumac isn’t really as well known in the western world but its popularity is rapidly increasing and it can now be found in regular grocery stores and supermarkets making it easily available if you are looking to experiment with it (if you aren’t already using it!).
The Native Americans also used to mix sumac with tobacco as a smoking mixture, and the stems of the plant were used for making pipes.
Tanning - Due to its rich colour and the fact that it contains a high level of tannin, sumac is used as a dye for leather. An interesting fact about sumac that is used as a dye is that transporting it with goods such as marble can be dangerous as if any of the sumac spills from where it has been stored then it can permanently dye and cause serious damage to marble.
Due to this sumac has to be carefully placed and the people who are transporting it have to be mindful of the other goods around it to ensure that no serous damage to cargo takes place.
Medical uses - It is scientifically proven that sumac helps lower blood pressure and there are also some records of it being used in the medieval Arab world as medicine, how they knew or if they even knew about its properties is unknown. Sumac was used however, to settle the stomach and was used as a medicine by both the Romans and the Native Americans (alongside Arabs which was mentioned earlier).
Some types of sumac are poisonous but can’t be mowed down as they grow back quickly, the most efficient way of removing them is to let goats graze in the place where they are situated (the goats eat the bark and prevent the growth of new shoots).
Za’atar - This is a spice mixture which is popularly used in Middle Eastern cooking. It is comprised of a herb that goes by the same name plus an addition of dried sumac, salt, sesame seeds and a few other spices. Although za’atar can be used in many dishes, for example as a seasoning for meat, it is commonly eaten with pitta bread dipped in olive oil.
Falafel - A falafel is a deep fried ball made from chickpeas or fava beans, flavoured with sumac, and is a popular Middle Eastern dish. Due to its simplicity and the fact that it is so versatile, the falafel has outgrown its reputation as a traditional Arabic dish and has now become a popular type of street food all over the world.
Normally the falafel is eaten in a pitta bread drizzled with tahini but more innovative variations have been seen over the recent years and everything from falafel wraps to sandwiches can be found depending on what region you are in.
The base ingredient of the falafel is chickpeas and therefore it is high in protein making it a popular alternative to meat for vegetarians (the falafel plays a big part in the new vegetarian/vegan trend as it is easy to make and nutritious).
Lahmacun - A popular Turkish dish, Lahmacun is a flat, round piece of dough topped with mince meat and various spices including sumac. Although it resembles a pizza and is sometimes called the “Turkish pizza”, lahmacun isn’t prepared with cheese (unless you find a restaurant that serves cheese lahmacun) and is of Middle Eastern not European origin (as the pizza originates from Italy).
Rice - Rice is a staple dish in many countries and is cooked in so many different ways. It can be sweet, savoury, served with meat or by itself; the ways to prepare rice are endless. Try adding a little sumac to boiled rice to give it a Middle Eastern touch.
Musakhan - The national dish of Palestine, musakhan is composed of roasted chicken flavoured with sumac and a range of other spices topped with pine nuts and served on taboon bread.
Hummus - For a simple but tasty snack, drizzle some oil olive on hummus and sprinkle sumac on top. Serve with bread for dipping.
In some countries sumac is used as a simple condiment alongside salt and pepper. Instead of using lemon juice or zest to add a tangy flavour to a dish, why not use sumac instead for a more exotic twist.
It can also be used as a dry rub for meat, lamb works well, as its flavour really compliments steaks and other meat dishes. Much like salt, sumac helps bring out the natural flavours in various types of food.
We hope you have inspired you to grab some sumac and try experimenting with this wonderful spice as it will be an experience you won’t regret.