Look at your spice rack. Cumin? Check. Cinnamon? Check. Paprika? Check. Sumac? *Tumbleweed rolls past.* A couple of years ago, I’d have had the same reaction. That is until, one evening, my fiancé and I went out for dinner and found ourselves pondering over a vibrant purple-red powder, sprinkled on our hummus. “It’s sumac,” our waiter said.
Many of the spices I’m most familiar with on the flavor spectrum tend to sit between deep and warming to sweet and earthy — but sumac bucks this trend by offering a more unusual zesty and lemon-like citrus tang.
From the berries of the sumac tree, these little fruits can be consumed whole, but generally you’ll find them ground down into a more versatile powder. The most common source, and there are over 18 varieties of sumac trees, is the Sicilian sumac.
FYI: don’t go foraging without an expert. Some sumac trees and their berries — such as the aptly named Poison Sumac — are toxic.
Now to the important question: how can you eat it? Name your favorite meal and there’s a good chance this nifty spice will be able to liven it up in some way (even just from its cool color).
After recreating the hummus dish, my partner and I began adding generous dustings of sumac to Greek salads. Its zesty taste perfectly complements salty feta and sharp onion. Rubbing it onto chicken and salmon before baking is also now a firm favorite cooking step, as is scattering the spice over fluffy scrambled eggs, roasted veg, or crispy potato wedges. Sweet tooth? It goes great with fruits, plain yogurt, and a touch of honey.
In the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries from which the Sicilian sumac hails, there are plenty of traditional recipes where sumac is incorporated. Musakhan, a popular Palestinian dish; fattoush salad, a Lebanese favorite; and Turkish kofta kebabs — all dishes you can easily make in your own kitchen.
But wait! There’s more good news: sumac offers all kinds of health benefits, too. If you’re looking for a spice based protection from free radicals — aka molecules that attack our cells which, when out of control, is thought to contribute to cancer, heart disease, asthma, and dementia to name a few — sumac is your friend.
This spice boasts an impressive antioxidant profile, thanks to gallic acid and tannins (antioxidants bind to free radicals to help cancel out their attack effect). Case in point: one study shows that people with type 2 diabetes with a risk of cardiovascular disease may benefit with a little help from sumac.
If you’re all about tradition, sumac was also considered an herbal medicine by the Greeks, Romans, and Native Americans. Modern studies are indicating this intent wasn’t too far off: sumac may be potentially effective for lowering blood pressure, regulating blood sugar, reducing LDL cholesterol, and decreasing muscle pain after exercise.
Whereas some ingredients require unrealistic amounts to be consumed before your health enjoys any kind of boost, you’ll be pleased to hear that around 3 grams per day may help you reap sumac’s merits — either in edible powder or capsule form. That’s just a teaspoon-worth!
Versatile, effective, and high bioavailability = all hail your new favorite spice.
For a super-simple way to sneak some sumac into your diet, give this delicious berry smoothie a whirl.
- 1/4 cup blueberries
- 1/3 cup strawberries
- 1 teaspoon sumac powder
- 1/2 teaspoon honey
- 1 cup milk
- 1 1/2 tablespoons plain yogurt
In a blender, mix all the ingredients together until well combined. Pour into a glass or bottle and enjoy!
Chantelle Pattemore is a writer and editor based in London, UK. She focuses on lifestyle, travel, food, health, and fitness.