If you’ve ever dined in a Middle Eastern restaurant, you may have noticed the dark red powder that dusts everything from salads to meat to baklava. It’s sumac, and it packs a wallop of tart, lemony, almost vinegar-like flavor that brightens salad dressings, popcorn, even Bloody Marys. It’s a spice every kitchen should have, and one that isn’t as hard to come by as you might think.
Where it’s from: It might surprise you to learn that this dry red powder isn’t a true spice — it gets harvested from the fruit of the sumac, or sumach flower, a member of the cashew family. Although it’s prevalent in Middle Eastern cooking, the plant hails mainly from subtropical and temperate areas in Africa and North America. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find the plant growing in Iran, Turkey or Yemen, three regions that covet the ancient seasoner. As for its use, over 2,000 years ago the Greek physician Pedanius Dioscorides wrote on the health properties of sumac in his epic tome De Materia Medica, and doctors as well as cooks have employed it for centuries. Medicinally it was utilized as an astringent, antiseptic and tonic. At one time there was even sumac pink lemonade, which helped cool feverish patients in addition to tasting good. In North America, the indigenous peoples also used fragrant and smooth sumac in beverages, mainly to create a concoction similar to beer.
When it’s in season: Harvested from the drupes, or stone fruit, of the sumac flower, this plant grows from early spring until late fall. However, its peak season is late summer through the middle of fall, and you can even find it yourself if you are tromping through the woods. Just be sure you don’t end up with poison sumac instead of the edible stuff. The former has white berries, not red, and instead of the flowers standing straight, they droop.
What to look for: There are many types of sumac you might find, including winged sumac, Sicilian sumac, fragrant or lemon sumac, littleleaf sumac, staghorn sumac, skunkbush or sourberry sumac and the most common, smooth or scarlet sumac. You can use any of these types (just stay away from poison sumac for the obvious reason) in cooking, though in stores you will usually find fragrant or smooth sumac. It all comes in powder form, and as long as you purchase it in a sealed container, it’s good to go.
How to store it: Like other spices, sumac should be kept in a closed container at room temperature or, if for some reason you end up with a whole lot of the stuff, in an airtight vessel in the refrigerator.
How to prepare it: The most basic use for sumac is sprinkled on top of things — fresh greens, a cucumber salad, grilled chicken or bread. However, some chefs are taking the ingredient and turning it on its head. “We use sumac in many different ways, from making vinaigrettes out of it to curing meats, seasoning meat and fish, and I have even made desserts with it, including puddings and ice cream,” says chef Dave Santos of Louro in Manhattan. “I like the acidity or citrus quality of sumac, which helps lend itself well to a lot of different ingredients.” As for desserts, Santos says it posseses a gentleness that works well in lieu of lemon. “When you think about sumac you think about its lemony quality along with a bit of astringency, just like a little pith from a citrus,” he said. Hence, he makes a traditional-style pudding that tastes of lemons but doesn’t have a lick of the fruit.
More traditionally, Tarik Fallous of Au Za’atar in NYC uses sumac in his house-made za’atar mixture, dusts it on pita, scatters it on top of traditional fattoush salad, mixes it into marinades and encrusts lamb chops with the stuff. Fallous also coats his Phoenician fries with it, a trick that adds a lemony kick to the crisp potatoes. “Sumac has a tart flavor, and in fact centuries ago, it served as the tart, acidic element in cooking before Romans introduced lemons in the region,” the chef and owner says. “I like to use it with fish and chicken, and I think that it adds liveliness and great flavor to vegetables. It is also great to use in a salad dressing that does not contain vinegar.” When using sumac in your own kitchen, Fallous warns, “Be aware that most sumac mixes have a pinch of salt so you should cut on salt.”
Read more Eat Globally columns on Food Republic: