Sumac is a spice most people probably haven’t heard of, let alone tasted. In Britain that’s not surprising, but it grows wild (both edible and poisonous varieties) across most of the warmer regions of the world. It’s also a spice unlike most others: not hot like chilli or pepper, earthy like cumin, nor is it fragrant like saffron or cardamom (the closest spice I can think of it resembling is dried lime). Sumac has a citrusy flavour, savoury and a little smoky, it is sometimes mixed with a little salt and is traditionally used to finish Mediterranean and Middle Eastern dishes, like hummus, or grilled meat.
Apart from the flavour, the deep red or burgundy colour of sumac is a big part of its appeal which looks quite striking sprinkled over food. Usually sumac will be sold dried and crushed to a coarse powder perfect for this purpose. It is derived from bright red berries that are dried out before being crushed, though in the Southern USA where sumac grows wild you’re more likely to find the fresh berries turned into a refreshing summer drink like lemonade; in the Middle East, dried sumac is mixed with dried thyme and sesame seeds to make za’atar, a blend used as a topping for flatbreads.
Whilst most at home in traditional Middle Eastern dishes, I’ve experimented a bit and found sumac to be a really versatile, everyday spice in the kitchen. Just as a squeeze of lemon juice adds some freshness to the end of a dish, a generous spoonful of sumac can do the same but without adding any acidity or liquid that might be unwanted.
Sumac is relatively easy to get hold of, despite its obscurity, most likely because of liberal usage in the successful books by Yotam Ottolenghi on the food of the Eastern Mediterranean and larger supermarkets do stock it. The best value for money however will come from small Middle Eastern shops that sell larger bags: sumac keeps it’s flavour well and should be used liberally so the small supermarket jars won’t last long!
For ideas for cooking with sumac, try these sumac and garlic chicken wings.