You can bring a taste of the Middle East and North Africa home by getting to know one of the most popular flavors of the region: sumac. This Middle Eastern spice deserves a spot in everyone’s pantry.
Prior to any exposure to Middle Eastern, and especially, Lebanese food, my association with the word “sumac” was inextricable with the word “poison,” and something to be avoided on nature walks.
This confession caused Ethan Frisch, former chef and founder of the single-origin spice company Burlap & Barrel to laugh. “It’s a totally different plant,” he reassured me. “The genus has many different species. Some North American varieties are poisonous, but not so in the Middle East.”
In a separate conversation with Phillipe Massoud, executive chef and owner of NYC’s fine dining Lebanese restaurant ilili, he also remarked, “what’s ironic is that the Native Americans used to use sumac as a healing agent.” Given its riotous fuchsia color, and slight lemony flavor, there is some speculation that this might also be the origin of pink lemonade. (Try it yourself if you’re curious.)
Clearly I had a lot to learn about this enigmatic spice, if you can call it that, whose popularity has been on the rise along with the various cuisines of the fertile crescent. With help from Frisch and Massoud, here’s a look into the origins, flavors, and uses of sumac, and why you should be incorporating its unique flavor into your summertime meals.
First Things First: What Is Sumac?
Sumac, as it is used in a culinary context, is the berry part of a sumac tree or shrub, of which there are about 35 species deriving from the genus Rhus. (Berries from some of those species can cause skin irritation, so best leave the harvesting to the experts.)
“It’s the dried, ground up fruit,” explains Frisch. “The fruit itself grows in cones, and the individual berries look like fuzzy red lentils with a pit in each one of them.”
Frisch explained the cultivation process, in which he has first hand experience through Burlap & Barrel. Along with the pits, which have no taste but contribute a little crumbly texture to the outcome, the dried berries are ground using a granite wheel and a little salt and water to aid in the process. The resulting paste is then typically sun- or heat-dried, though Frisch subscribes to a curing method which comes with a typically shorter shelf life, but leads to a more robust product.
The result is a sumac powder that has a larger grain than one expects with most ground spices, with a trace of moisture and an unmistakable magenta hue.
What Does Sumac Taste Like?
“Sumac is tart and fruity but it also has kind of an iron tang, or a savory back note,” says Frisch. It also shares characteristics beyond just the color with hibiscus. “It does taste like hibiscus in a lot of ways, but hibiscus is sweeter, and sumac has almost a metallic character to it that makes it savory.”
Massoud agrees: “It’s very tart—you can use it as a substitute for citrus.”
How is Sumac Typically Used?
“It’s pretty much on the table in the way we have salt and pepper on the table,” says Frisch, in places such as Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey. Sprinkled on top, it brightens not only with flavor, but with color, dishes like hummus and baba ganoush. It can be used to marinate meats, and used to add a pop of flavor anywhere you’d add lemon juice.
A couple of classic Middle Eastern dishes involving sumac are fattoush salad, a combination between a lettuce salad and a bread salad with the inclusion of toasted pita bread, and musakhan, a Lebanese stewed chicken dish. But its uses are extremely broad: “You can make it into a tea, you can use it in pastry, you can use it in savory. If you toast it, it changes in flavor completely. There’s really nothing like it,” says Massoud.
Once you get to know it, you’ll always be able to spot it. “That sumac tartness is unmistakable,” concludes Frisch.