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Sumac is a staple within Middle Eastern cuisine, just like salt and pepper in the UK. Sumac is a focal point in Turkish, Lebanese and Arabian cooking, where it adds a citrus flavour to chicken, salads, fish, vegetables, rice and eggs. The berries are also a key ingredient in the spice mix Zahtar.
Sumac, also known as Sumach, Sumak, Sommak or Somak, is a berry grown on a wild-grown shrub or small tree (genus Rhus). The word ‘sumac’ derives from the arabic word ‘summaq’, meaning red, which refers to the colour of the berries. The fruits typically grow in the Mediterranean and the Middle East, especially Turkey and Iran. Although there are many varieties, the species Rhus Coriaria is cultivated to make the ingredient we know and love.
The berries are typically harvested whole, then dried, processed and crushed. Crushed sumac is a beautiful deep shade of red, with a tangy, tart and pleasantly sour flavour. It contains both earthy and citrus notes.
Crushed Sumac is used extensively within the Middle East. Used as a souring agent, it flavours lamb dishes such as kebabs, as well as vegetables, rice and salads. Another easy way to add ground sumac to your dishes is substituting it where you might use lemon juice. For example, try sprinkling over the top of a freshly made summer salad!
In Arab cuisine and across the Mediterranean, ground sumac is used to garnish hummus amongst other meze style dishes. Mixed with yoghurt and herbs, it works perfectly in dips.
Although the exact origin of the sumac plant is unknown, it has been used for medicinal and culinary purposes in Europe, Africa and the Middle East since the medieval period. The name comes from the Arabic word ‘summaq’ meaning ‘dark red’.
Before lemons were cultivated, the Romans used sumac to add acidity to food. There are records of Pedanius Dioscorides, the Roman Emperor Nero’s physician, discovering sumac’s properties as a diuretic and anti-flatulent.
In North America, sumac was used by Native Americans in beverages, cough and sore throat treatments, and in smoking mixtures in ceremonies.
The tangy Middle Eastern zahtar or za’atar spice mix is a combination of sumac and other ingredients, including toasted sesame seeds and thyme. Zahtar spice mix is a great balance of savoury, nutty and tart flavours.
Traditionally, the seasoning is added to olive oil and used as a dip for bread within the Middle East. Other Middle Eastern regions bake the seasoning into flatbreads. Zathar is also ideal mixed in marinades when roasting chicken, fish and vegetables. The seasoning can also be dusted over eggs, grains and salads.
Over recent decades, Middle Eastern cuisine has grown in popularity and UK suppliers have made buying sumac online more readily available on the market.
When buying sumac, it is very important that you know that the supplier has carried out sufficient quality checks. Fresh, high-quality product has a natural deep, rich hue. Poor-quality product can be contaminated with illegal dyes such as Sudan and Orange II to mimic the colour of a premium product. For further details please see the Food Standards Agency website.
Remember that this product can sometimes contain added salt, sometimes only in very small percentages. However, Seasoned Pioneers only source and supply pure sumac that is 100% free from added salt!
The closely related species of sumac called staghorn (Rhus typhina) grows in Midwestern USA. The red berries grow in clusters on a shrub with long, pointed leaves that turn red and orange during Autumnal months. The Native American population used to prepare traditional sour beverages called sumac-ade using this variety with water and sugar.
There are plenty of sumac recipes to try these days! We have a number for you to enjoy, such as Baked Chicken and Onions or Spiced Persian Meatballs. Lastly, for any vegetarians, we have a recipe for Pilaf Stuffed Onions. Leading food writers have also made good use of sumac recipes and zahtar recipes within their cookbooks.
Ghillie Basan is a well know food writer and expert in Middle Eastern cuisine and Middle Eastern recipes. She has published more than 40 titles including Modern Moroccan – ancient traditions combined with contemporary cooking, which includes great recipes. Ghillie even allowed us to share one of her recipes with you: Toasted Bread Salad with Sumac. Read our interview with Ghillie to learn about her career in food. You can even try making her delicious hot hummus recipe and hear the story of how she came to obtain it during her travels in Turkey!
Nigella Lawson first mentioned our sumac back in 2002 in her book ‘Forever Summer’. There are several delicious recipes using both Seasoned Pioneers sumac and zahtar. For example, Nigella used zahtar (za’atar) in a flatbread pizza recipe on page 16. This mixed with a little oil and rubbed into the flatbread for a warming, Eastern Mediterranean version of pizza.
On page 134, Nigella uses both products in her Za’atar Chicken and Fattoush recipe. The zahtar is worked into the skin of the chicken and left to marinate to give the meat an aromatic, fragrant flavour.
The sumac is used to season the salad, which contains toasted pitta pieces, onions, tomatoes, parsley, mint and garlic. Use of the intensely sour taste is designed to compliment the sweet tomatoes and savoury herbs. The sumac salad is served alongside the zahtar chicken for a deeply spiced feast.
When Rick Stein released his cookbook ‘From Venice to Istanbul’ we were delighted to see that crushed sumac appears in several of his recipes. The cookbook also includes other Middle Eastern spices including ground cumin, as well as Mediterranean spices such as wild oregano and saffron.
Whether you are planning on creating an authentic Middle Eastern feast or wanting a versatile seasoning to sprinkle over your salads, sumac is the perfect choice to add a tart and fresh dimension to your cooking. Search for recipes. Shop here.
Keen to try it out? You can find crushed sumac berries on our website here. Here are some great recipes which use the spice: