Sumac: The Underrated Middle Eastern Spice
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You may have come across sumac in your local supermarket or delicatessen, but did you know that this versatile and underutilized spice can help boost a number of health-promoting properties?

With its vibrant red color, sumac has been used since ancient times as a dye. Its sharp citrusy tang and astringent, pungent flavor make it a fantastic addition to any chef's repertoire. In this blog post, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about the many benefits of using sumac.

The word "sumac" may be used to describe any of the 35 species of flowering plants in the genus Rhus, of the cashew family. The plants are found all over the world, with North America, Africa, and East Asia having the largest phenotypic diversity. Species of the plant may be differentiated based on the shape and color of their inflorescence. Sumac plants sport flowers that are composed of tiny panicles of various sizes in a number of colors, from bright red to beige.

The so-called sumac "berries" are panicles of the flower, which can be consumed as is or processed into different products. Staghorn sumac, which grows in North America, is often foraged and turned into a sumac "lemonade," made by steeping the berries in water for a few hours. Locals also use the sumac to make a Korean-style syrup by mixing the sumac with an equal volume of sugar. The sugar draws out the water from the berries over the course of a few days, resulting in a thin, flavorful syrup. The most prevalent use case for the berries is as a spice; sumac is dried and ground in order to produce a coarse red powder that has a characteristic funk to it, a sourness with subtle floral undertones.

This powder is popularly used as a garnish or as part of spice mixtures. The use of the spice is most widespread in the Mediterranean and the Middle East, as a garnish for dishes such as muhammara, hummus, and grilled lamb. The berries are also part of the Za’atar spice rub, which is used to flavor dishes like falafel and lamb stew. Sumac can also be used to make a light vinegar that may be used for preparations that are too mild for stronger acids like lemon or lime juice.

Sumac is also an incredible source of nutrients and phytochemicals. The berries have a high proportion of fiber and anthocyanins, which makes them a great way to address overall oxidative stress in the body and maintain a healthy gut. The flowers also contain two types of healthy fat: oleic and linolenic acids, which help in maintaining cardiovascular health, optimizing intercellular connectivity, and retaining surface moisture.

Studies have also shown that the antioxidants present in the berries help in maintaining healthy blood sugar levels and alleviating muscle cramps. The plant may be consumed daily in the form of a powder or concentrated herbal supplement. Read on for two recipes that make it easy for you to incorporate the vibrant berries into your diet.

Sumac hummus 

    Start by making tahini. Gently toast the desired quantity of white sesame till it takes on an off-white or golden color. Allow to cool. 

    Blend the sesame until smooth, adding olive oil to adjust consistency. Season with a pinch of salt. Set aside. 

    In a large mortar and pestle, mash the desired quantity of boiled chickpeas until smooth, adding garlic cloves, sumac powder, and salt to taste. You may peel the chickpeas for an airier texture or use a blender instead of a mortar and pestle to make the mixture more homogenous.

    In a large wooden bowl, combine the mashed chickpeas with the tahini in a 2:1 ratio. Top with a generous amount of olive oil and garnish with sumac powder or za’atar mix. Serve warm. 

Lactofermented sumac vinegar

    Place a large glass jar on a weighing scale, add the desired quantity of sumac, and top with water to the brim of the jar. Now, strain the water into a jug and transfer the sumac back into the jar. Subtract the initial and current weights, and multiply the result by 0.02 (0.03 for a more saline mixture; this will slow down fermentation).

    The resulting number is how many grams of salt are to be added to the mixture. Add the salt to the jar along with the water. Shake until the salt has dissolved.

    Place the jar in a warm, dark place for anywhere from three to five days, burping the jar every day to avoid gas buildup. Use the vinegar as a mild seasoning or as the base for a vinaigrette.