Skip to content

Sumac: A Uniquely Versatile Spice

Contributing writer: Jameel Dabbagh

The sumac flower

Where Does Summac Come From?

With deep red hues and a rich culinary history that extends across the globe, sumac is an essential ingredient in Lebanese kitchens and throughout the Arab world. It comes from the berries of the sumac flower which is a member of the cashew family. The wild plant grows in Mediterranean areas such as Sicily in southern Italy and parts of the Middle East most notably Iran. Although it grows in different regions around the world such as Turkey, Yemen Iran and Greece, the sumac flower is said to hail mainly from subtropical and temperate areas in East Asia, Africa and North America.

Sumac powder

Medicinal Uses

An exotic spice, sumac not only has a bold flavor but is also filled with many health-giving qualities. Thousands of years ago, physicians used it as an astringent, antiseptic and tonic. Various cultures around the world have used sumac for its healing properties. Smooth sumac has been used by different Native American tribes as an antiemetic, antidiarrheal, antihemorrhagic, blister treatment, cold remedy, emetic, mouthwash, asthma treatment, tuberculosis remedy, sore throat treatment, ear medicine, eye medicine, heart medicine, venereal aid, ulcer treatment and to treat rashes.

Culinary Uses

Aside from its medicinal properties, it has many culinary uses and is commonly used as a condiment to season, enhance and compliment flavors. It is harvested from the sumac flower, picked, dried and then ground into a powder-like substance. In Arab countries, particularly in the Eastern Mediterranean, sumac is a major ingredient along with thyme and salt in za’atar, which is used as a seasoning on fried and barbecued meat, or it is combined with olive oil to make a tasty dip.  Native Americans use the fruits of smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) and staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) to make an Indian lemonade called “sumac-ade.” This drink is prepared by soaking the ripe fruits of sumac in water and rubbing them to extract the essence which is then strained through a cotton cloth to produce a liquid which is sweetened.

Fattoush seasoned with sumac

Sumac is a versatile spice that is often used to enhance tastes and flavors. It can be rubbed on meats, chicken, or fish, added to marinades or used to increase the acidity in yogurt sauces or vinaigrettes. Due to its attractive red color it is often used as a decorative garnish on dishes such as hummus. Examples of dishes using sumac include (but are not limited to): shawerma mousakhan (Palestinian chicken), Lebanese fattoush, parsley and sumac salad, spiced kumara (sweet potato) dip, with crisp flatbread, Turkish potato salad, gavurdagi, African spice mix and many other dishes from around the world! In the Lebanese rural cuisine, this spice is used to season jabali tomato with garlic, a traditional appetizer, and it adds a rich flavor to “kebbeh sumakiyeh” a vegetarian type of kebbeh.

Where to buy Sumac

Nabatieh, East Zawtar: Mohamad Neameh (Abou Kassem) — Agricultural Cooperative Society of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants: 70-845-194

Al Warhanyi, Chouf: Wissam Ghanem — Al-Wissam Products: 70-274-695

Bent Jbeil, Ain Qibil: Tamam Maroun— Agricultural Cooperative Association for the Production of Food Processing: 03-745-098

For more tasty sumac recipes check out:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *