Organic sumac is a dark red, almost purplish, culinary spice that originates from the sumac shrub. This plant grows wild in many Mediterranean areas, most notably in Southern Italy. The shrub forms its fruit in dense reddish clusters, which are harvested, dried, and ground coarsely to produce sumac spice. The shrub’s widespread growth, along with the berries unique properties, have allowed it to integrate itself into a wide range of dishes, and has become a staple in many cuisines.
The widespread love of sumac comes from its ability to add a tangy zest to nearly any type of savory dish, specifically those that benefit from a bit of sour/tartness –this flexibility can be seen by looking at the range of dishes that it has become a pivotal component of. In Middle Eastern Cuisines it is most often associated with the spice mix known as Za’atar, in which it is the primary component. This mixture is quite versatile, being used to boost the flavor of both salads and meats. Sumac is also nearly always a part of traditional Arab cuisines, which use it as a vibrant garnish on top of appetizers and small plates –such as hummus. While Iranian’s employ the power of this zesty spice to balance out and boost the flavor of their beloved kebabs. Another unique usage of sumac is the role it plays in the Lebanese Fattoush (toasted pita bread) salad -in this case sumac is used in the dressing.
However, the versatility of the sumac plant isn’t limited to culinary purposes. In North America, for example, a different variety of sumac grows that was mixed with tobacco and smoked ceremonially by Native Americans. Some varieties, slightly different than the edible spice cultivar, are also utilized for their vibrant coloring abilities –being able to provide a beautiful crimson colored shade to cured leather. This spice also boasts medicinal properties, and has been used in Mediterranean regions as a digest aid for thousands of years. These properties are even noted by the Greek physician Pedanius Dioscorides in his medical journals around 50 AD. More recently evidence for the health properties of this powerful spice have been focused on its high antioxidant load.
Using it at home
Sumac is a spice cabinet must-have that can be used to add a zesty snap to nearly any sort of vegetable or meat based dish. The versatility of this crimson colored spice comes from its unique ability to boost the flavor of the dish, bringing out natural flavors, without ever overpowering. In particular, it can be used any time you find yourself wanting to add a touch of lemon or vinegar to balance out the dish, or add a bit of tartness. Although it should be noted that although it can make up for the sour taste, it does not affect the acidic level of the dish the same way that lemon or vinegar can –which some recipes may require.
When it comes to sumac get creative and don’t be scared. Rub meats, flavor stews, or boost sauces… you really can’t go wrong! You can also soak it and mix it into salad dressings, or stir it into yogurt to make a low-sugar dip. Remember, that while the spice can be added in during the cooking process, its beautifully vibrant color makes it the ultimate garnish to add just before serving.