Sumac is a variety of flowering shrub that belongs to a family of plants known as Anacardiaceae. Other common members of this family include cashew and mango plants. Sumac thrives in subtropical and temperate climates and grows all over the world.
There are more than 200 different species of sumac, all of which belong to the genus Rhus. However, Rhus coriaria, or Syrian sumac, is the variety people most frequently cultivate for culinary use and herbal medicine.
Sumac is characterized by the large, dense clusters of bright red, pea-sized fruit it produces. It can be steeped to make tea, but more often it is used as a powder for an herbal supplement or in cooking.
The sumac spice should not be confused with poison sumac. Though poison sumac is related, it’s distinctly different. Poison sumac produces white-colored fruit and can cause allergic reactions similar to those from poison ivy or poison oak.
The berries are turned into a coarse powder and sold as a ground spice; the berries are also available whole, although this is much less common in the U.S.. Sumac is a versatile seasoning that adds a bright red color and a tartness, similar to lemon juice, to a dish. One of the most common uses for sumac is in the spice blend called za’atar. Once the berries are fully ripe, they are harvested, dried, and ground. The processed sumac takes on a dark red-burgundy color and the texture of ground nuts. It has a similar smell and taste to lemon but is not as sour. Sumac is similar to salt as it brings out the natural flavors of the foods it is cooked with. Before lemons made their way into Europe, the Romans used sumac to add a tanginess to dishes.
The name sumac comes from the Aramaic word summaq which means “dark red.” As far back as 2,000 years ago sumac was noted for being a diuretic and anti-flatulent by Roman Emperor Nero’s physician, Pedanius Dioscorides.
In North America, indigenous peoples and early pioneers used sumac to treat a variety of ailments, from coughs and sore throats to stomachaches and wounds.
Sumac has fiber, healthy fats, and some essential vitamins. Sumac contains at least trace amounts of several essential nutrients, including vitamins C, B6, B1, and B2. A 2014 analysis found that nutritionally dried sumac is made up of approximately 71% carbs, 19% fat, and 5% protein. The majority of the fat in sumac comes from two particular types of fat known as oleic acid and linoleic acid.
Oleic acid is a type of monounsaturated fat commonly associated with heart health. This is the primary fat found in other common plant-based foods, including olives and avocados. Linoleic acid is a type of essential polyunsaturated fat that’s involved in maintaining healthy skin and cellular membranes.
Sumac is rich in multiple antioxidant compounds, including tannins, anthocyanins, and flavonoids. Antioxidants work to protect your cells from damage and reduce oxidative stress within the body.
Some research suggests sumac may be an effective tool for managing blood sugar in people with type 2 diabetes. A 2014 study of 41 people with diabetes evaluated the impact of a daily 3-gram dose of sumac on blood sugar and antioxidant levels. At the conclusion of the 3-month study, the group that received the sumac supplement had significantly improved average blood sugar and antioxidant levels compared with those who took a placebo.
Another similar study asked a group of 41 people with diabetes to take a 3-gram dose of sumac powder every day for 3 months. The sumac group experienced a 25% reduction in circulating insulin, suggesting their insulin sensitivity may have increased as a result of the sumac supplement.
A 2016 study gave 40 healthy people a sumac beverage or a placebo to investigate the potential for sumac to relieve muscle pain. At the conclusion of the 4-week study, the group that received the sumac drink reported significantly less exercise-induced muscle pain compared with the group that received the placebo beverage. The sumac group also experienced significant increases in circulating antioxidant levels.
Sumac has no adverse reactions reported in available clinical research. Because sumac is related to cashews and mango, people with allergies to those foods should avoid sumac to avoid allergic reactions. Sumac may lower blood sugar, so be watchful if you are taking medications that lower blood sugar.
How to Buy
Ground sumac can be found in the spice aisle of supermarkets or in the international foods section along with the Middle Eastern products. Specialty grocers and Middle Eastern markets should carry ground sumac and may have the whole berries in stock. You can also find both forms of sumac online. When possible, buy the whole berry as it has a much longer shelf life.
How to Store
Ground sumac can last for several months, and whole sumac can last for upwards of a year. Store sumac in an airtight container away from heat and light.
How to Cook
Sumac blends well with other spices such as allspice, chili, thyme, and cumin. Ground sumac can be used as is, straight from its container, as a flavoring in vegetable dishes (such as eggplant), and is the perfect seasoning for homemade hummus.
Similar to a squeeze of lemon juice over a finished recipe, sumac is at its best when sprinkled over a dish right before serving. Sumac is also a good choice when looking to add a lemon flavor to a dish but don’t want to add a liquid to the recipe.