What Is Sumac? The Middle Eastern Spice And How To Use It

In the culinary world, there are hundreds of herbs and spices to explore, and one that's garnering more attention recently is Sumac. Sumac is most commonly associated with Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine and has been used for centuries to enhance the flavours of various dishes. A deep red hue with a tangy, lemony flavour, sumac not only adds a burst of colour but also a unique zest to your meals. In this article, we will explore the world of sumac and delve into six simple yet exquisite ways to incorporate it into your culinary creations.

In its natural form, the sumac plant is a wild bush predominantly found in the Mediterranean region, spanning from Italy to Greece and Lebanon. While Middle Eastern cuisine is its most familiar domain, sumac also thrives in regions like Turkey and Iran. Beyond these areas, the sumac flower grows in temperate and subtropical zones of Africa and North America. 

This beloved spice is not just delicious but helpful too and is considered beneficial for digestion in alternative medicine circles. Sumac berries are often juiced to create a potent beverage that calms the stomach and alleviates digestive discomfort. In Roman cuisine, sumac played a key role in infusing food with a citrus-like quality, much like how lemon or vinegar is used in Western cooking today. It continued to provide a tart touch to dishes in Europe until lemons became more accessible. And while the precise origins of this wild plant remain a mystery, it has been harnessed for medicinal and culinary purposes throughout Europe, Africa, and the Middle East since mediaeval times.

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Ways To Use Sumac

Sumac as a Spice Rub

One of the most common uses of sumac is as a spice rub for meats and vegetables. It imparts a tangy, citrusy note that complements the natural flavours of the ingredients. To create a sumac spice rub, mix ground sumac with salt, pepper, and other spices of your choice. This blend can be used to season chicken, lamb, or even fish before grilling or roasting. The vibrant colour of sumac also adds a delightful visual appeal to your dishes.

Sumac Infused Olive Oil

Sumac-infused olive oil is a simple yet effective way to incorporate the unique flavours of sumac into your cooking. To make this infusion, add a few tablespoons of sumac to a cup of olive oil and let it sit for a day or two. The oil will take on the vibrant red hue of sumac and develop a delightful lemony flavour. Drizzle this sumac-infused olive oil over salads, or grilled vegetables, or use it as a dip for bread. It's a perfect way to elevate the taste of your dishes.

Sumac in Dips and Sauces

Sumac can also be used to create tantalising dips and sauces. A classic example is "za'atar," a Middle Eastern spice blend that often includes sumac. To make a simple za'atar dip, combine sumac with sesame seeds, thyme, salt, and olive oil. This dip pairs wonderfully with bread, pita, or vegetables, making it an excellent addition to your party platters.

Sumac in Marinades

Marinades are an excellent way to infuse flavour into your meats and poultry, and sumac can play a starring role in these concoctions. Combine sumac with ingredients like yoghurt, garlic, and olive oil to create a zesty marinade for chicken or lamb. The acidity of sumac tenderises the meat while imparting a delightful citrus kick. Let the meat soak in this marinade for a few hours before grilling or roasting for a dish that's sure to impress.

Sumac on Roasted Vegetables

Sumac's tangy flavour pairs beautifully with roasted vegetables. To create a sumac-inspired side dish, simply sprinkle sumac over your choice of vegetables, such as carrots, potatoes, or cauliflower, before roasting. The sumac not only enhances the taste of the veggies but also adds a touch of elegance with its reddish hue. It's a simple yet effective way to transform ordinary vegetables into a gourmet delight.

Sumac in Rice and Grain Dishes

Sumac can also boost the taste of otherwise dull rice and grain dishes. Consider adding a teaspoon or two of sumac when cooking rice, quinoa, or couscous. This imparts a unique tangy note that pairs well with various cuisines. You can also include sumac in grain salads for an extra burst of flavour and colour.