Sumac is the secret weapon in your spice cabinet: it has the power to bring incredible acidity to your food without adding extra liquid. It’s not bitter like lemon zest or astringent like vinegar, but somewhat fruity and floral without being noticeably sweet. Chances are, if you’ve had Middle Eastern or Mediterranean dishes like kebab or anything dusted with za’atar, you’ve tasted sumac’s wonderful tartness. It’s also a spice that goes well with just about anything, which is why so much of the world uses it. But for all of its popularity, sumac still hasn’t found a place in the average American’s spice arsenal — which is why there’s no better time to give it a closer look.
What is sumac?
If you search for sumac on the internet, your results will probably churn out images of shrubs and bunches of fuzzy berries. These fruits, which are the edible portion of the plant, are roughly the size of a pea and grow in dense, bright-red clusters at the end of the plant’s branches. (There are also sumac plants that bear white berries, but this kind of sumac is poisonous, and should be avoided at all costs. More on that later.)
Sumac berries grow on deciduous shrubs and trees in the Rhus genus of the Anacardiaceae family, making them distant cousins to cashews and mangoes. These trees are known for their pinnate leaves, vertical clusters of red berries, and white or green flowers. Deciduous sumac species also change colors with the seasons and come in shades of orange, red, and purple when fall rolls around. These plants grow in temperate and subtropical climates and can be found in the Mediterranean, Africa, Asia, and all over North America. And while the Rhus genus consists of over 150 species, the two most commonly consumed variations today are Rhus coriaria and Rhus typhina.
Rhus coriaria (also known as Sicilian sumac, Iranian sumac, and Syrian sumac, depending on who you ask) is the variation that originated in the Mediterranean basin before spreading across southern Europe and the Middle East. It can reach up to 10 feet in height and is principally grown for its edible berries, which are dried and ground to produce powdered sumac.
Rhus typhina is one of the several edible varieties of sumac found in North America. Other variations, such as Rhus glabra, Rhus aromatica, and Rhus copallinum, can be found from southern Canada to parts of northern Mexico, each with their own distinct characteristics. Rhus glabra and copallinum, known as “smooth sumac” and “shining sumac,” respectively, lack the same fuzzy coating as Rhus typhina. Instead, these variations produce hairless fruits and twigs and have been used to create sumac-ade for centuries. The young sprouts of Rhus glabra trees are also edible and were historically eaten in “salads” by American Indian communities.
Rhus aromatica, or “fragrant sumac,” is the rarest of the three North American varieties. Known for releasing a strong lemon scent when its leaves and twigs are bruised, its tart berries are also commonly used to create beverages and were a common source of dye and tobacco flavoring for the Cheyenne people.
Where does sumac come from?
Sumac’s history is often disputed — some insist it originated in Sicily, while others contend it originated in Syria or Iran.
“I think humans have been eating sumac berries for as long as we’ve been on this planet,” says Ethan Frisch, the co-founder and co-owner of the spice company Burlap & Barrel. That said, he adds, “I don’t think it’s possible to isolate a single origin of sumac.” Instead, he theorizes that it “began growing all over the eastern Mediterranean around the same time.”
Its name also has some mixed origins, with potential sources being the Old French word sumac, the Arabic word summaq, and the Syriac word summaaqa, all of which translates to “dark red.” In addition to being descriptive, these names paint a picture of just how far this ingredient has traveled throughout history due to migration, trade, and cultural blending. And even though not everyone might agree on exactly where it came from, it certainly has stood the test of time.
In ancient Greek and Roman societies, sumac was used for dying wool, tanning leather, treating indigestion, and, of course, adding acidity to food. Its culinary uses eventually spread throughout Europe before lemons were imported from the Middle East in the second century. By the 15th century, Europeans began to widely cultivate the lemon and utilize it as a main source of acid in their diet, causing sumac to fall out of favor. Nevertheless, it continued to play a major role in the foods of the Middle East.
What does sumac taste like?
The flavor of sumac can be likened to the tang of fresh-squeezed lemon juice; it’s tart and sharp, but also contains a hint of sweetness, along with lingering floral notes.
“It’s a subtle tang with some fruitiness that you wouldn’t get from lemon juice,” says food blogger Amina Al-Saigh. “I also love its pink color. It just makes food look amazing.”
“Sumac is slightly smokey and quite earthy as well,” says Sami Tamimi, the co-owner of London’s Ottolenghi and co-author of three best-selling cookbooks. “You can taste it when you add it to dishes because it’s so astringent.”
What is sumac used for?
Sumac berries can be used either whole or ground into a spice. The ingredient’s prevalence in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cooking illustrates how versatile it really is.
In the Mediterranean, sumac berries are traditionally dried and ground into a powder for seasoning or garnishing a number of dishes. “Typically the whole sumac berry is crushed during processing,” explains Burlap & Barrel’s Frisch. “You can remove the sumac berry’s fruit from the pit, but it’s very labor intensive and has to be done one by one. There hasn’t been a method to mechanize it yet, so usually both the fruit and pit get crushed together in commercial processing.”
In his work as a chef, Tamimi says, “sumac is used to tenderize meat” thanks to an enzyme it contains that “helps make meat juicier and softer.” Using sumac to season barbecue is also a common practice across the Middle East, including in Al-Saigh’s native Iraq.
“You’ll always find it on grilled meat, like kebab, grilled chicken, or lamb. The acidity of sumac cuts through the heavy richness of meat, balances the flavors, and gives it a nice contrast,” says Al-Saigh. “I use it daily for multiple [foods], like salads and dressings. Iraqi cuisine, to me, really values tanginess. That’s the thing we do — bringing that sweet and sour note through sumac or pomegranate molasses and tamarind. We really amp the tanginess of our dishes.”
With its ability to enhance flavors, sumac spice can also be used to add tartness to both sweet and savory dairy-based dishes. “It is delicious on dairies like labneh and cheese, and I also put it on ricotta with a little bit of olive oil. I love it on ice cream as well. Its flavor is so tart, but mild enough that you can add it to sweets like condensed milk or vanilla ice cream,” says Tamimi.
Whole, dried berries also have their uses. They can be used to season foods, such as sumagiyya, a Palestinian stew, and when they’re crushed and soaked they can create sweet, refreshing drinks. When he was growing up in East Jerusalem, says Tamimi, “I remember one of my aunties in Hebron had a few [sumac] shrubs, and she used to pick their berries and slightly crush them. She’d make a drink from them by soaking them to make a slightly sweet drink.”
Crushed and soaked berries can also be used for a tart broth for stewing dishes, such as Iraqi dolma, a stuffed vegetable dish. “Dolma is a dish that varies across the region, but the Iraqi version must be super tangy. Instead of lemon juice, we use water flavored from soaked sumac,” says Al-Saigh. “You can crush and soak the berries or stir the powder into boiling water and strain it after.”
In North America, where sumac species evolved independently from their Mediterranean counterparts, sumac is also used to create tart beverages. They are often made with Rhus typhina, also known as staghorn sumac, which gets its nickname from the red hairs covering its fruits and branches, similar to the velvet covering a deer’s antlers. Staghorn sumac’s reddish-purple berries taste similar to those of Rhus coriaria. Historically, American Indians used staghorn sumac in a variety of ways, brewing the berries to create a beverage known as sumac-ade, and smoking or mashing the leaves to formulate various medicinal treatments for sore throats, diarrhea, and fevers.
“Sumac berries are quite hard, so you need to dry them to remove the skin,” notes Tamimi. “It’s not like a ‘fruit berry’; it’s more like a black-pepper berry.” So if you come across an edible sumac shrub or happen to have one in your backyard, you’ll need to tenderize its berries first before using them in your kitchen.
Speaking of finding sumac in the wild, what’s this about poison sumac?
While this harmful species shares a similar name to edible sumac, it’s a very different plant. While it resembles Rhus copallinum with its glossy leaves, it grows white berries instead of red. Like poison ivy and poison oak, poison sumac can cause contact dermatitis if you brush up against it, with symptoms like itchiness, redness, and burning appearing on the skin within a few hours. This is why it’s important to pay attention to the color of the berries; if they’re white, remember to steer clear.
Where can I buy sumac?
Ground sumac is available in the spice aisle of most American grocery stores or at your local Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian markets. Finding dried sumac berries is not as common in the United States, but they can be ordered online or found in specialty markets.
What if I want to grow my own sumac?
You sure can, but make sure you plant the species that offers what you’re looking for. Aside from double-checking that you’re not growing poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix), choose a deciduous sumac species to experience its wonderful fruits and a beautiful change of color during the fall season. (But beware: poison sumac plants are also deciduous and have lovely foliage in the autumn months.)
Sumac plants are either male or female, with the male species producing pollen but not fruit from its flowers. So if sumac’s edible properties are what you’re looking for, first make sure that you are planting a female plant.
Sumac is easiest to grow from cuttings, so search for a wild plant nearby or buy cuttings at your local nursery. These trees commonly appear alongside highways and on the edges of large fields across North America, so finding a sumac tree shouldn’t be impossible. If you decide to grow your sumac from some seeds, note that they have a hard coating that can potentially take years to break down, even in the wild.
Overall, sumac trees are very sturdy and have a relatively high tolerance to various conditions. Although they typically thrive in full sun and well-drained soil, they can easily adapt to their surroundings as long as they have ample space to grow. That is why sumac trees are usually not recommended for anyone with a small garden. Once it’s given the space it need, expect your sumac plant to grow rapidly, and make sure you keep track of new colonies. These trees have a reputation of becoming invasive species when allowed to spread freely.
If so much of the world eats sumac, then why isn’t it a staple over here?
Sumac can be found in American grocery stores, so its lack of mainstream popularity is likely due to a lack of consumer awareness. But, says Al-Saigh, “I think sumac is definitely starting to become more popular, in the same way we witnessed more awareness for things like za’atar. With social media, more Middle Eastern bloggers out there or even Western bloggers discovering Middle Eastern food, I see a lot more awareness of it.”
“Play with it,” Tamimi advises. “It’s an ingredient you can use in so many ways. Use it on fish, dairy dishes, dips, or use it to tenderize your meat. It’s a shame not to use it.”
If you’re interested in playing with this wonderful spice but don’t know quite where to start, below are some recipes that can point you in the right direction.
Sami Tamimi’s Chicken Musakhan
Naz Deravian’s Mahi ba Somagh
Melissa Hamilton & Christopher Hirsheimer’s Yogurt & Sumac Sauce
Yumna Jawad’s Lebanese Fattoush Salad
Amina Al-Saigh’s Sumac Chicken and Onion
Sara Leana Ahmand’s Iraqi Dolma
Yasmin Khan’s Adana Kebabs
Yotam Ottolenghi’s Sumac-Roasted Strawberries with Yogurt Cream
Nik Sharma’s Sumac & Saffron Refresher
Sylvio Martins is a freelance writer and actor based in Los Angeles.
Sophia Pappas is a Pittsburgh-based illustrator.