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Spice Descriptions and Uses

Sumac Rhus coriaria L.

Elm-leafed Sumac, Smooth Sumac, Scarlet Sumac, Upland Sumac, Mountain Sumac, Sicilian Sumac, Sumach, Sumak, Summak, Tannerís Sumach, French: sumac, German: Sumach, Italian: sommacco, Spanish: zumaque, Arabic: sammak

This spice comes from the berries of a wild bush that grows wild in all Mediterranean areas, especially in Sicily and southern Italy, and parts of the Middle East, notably Iran. It is an essential ingredient in Arabic cooking, being preferred to lemon for sourness and astringency. Many other varieties of sumac occur in temperate regions of the world. In North America Rhus glabra is known for its use in the tanning industry and for its medicinal properties. Also in North Americai is the related Rhus toxicodendron (poison ivy) which can cause a severe skin reaction when touched.

Spice Description

The berries are dried and crushed to form a coarse purple-red powder. The whole fruit appears in dense clusters. Individual berries are small, round, 10 mm (1/4") in diameter, russet coloured and covered with hairs.

Bouquet: Slightly aromatic.

Flavour: Sour, fruity and astringent

Preparation and Storage

The berries can be dried, ground and sprinkled into the cooking, or macerated in hot water and mashed to release their juice, the resulting liquid being used as one might use lemon juice. Ground sumac keeps well if kept away from light and air.

Culinary Uses

Sumac is used widely in cookery in Arabia, Turkey and the Levant, and especially in Lebanese cuisine. In these areas it is a major souring agent, used where other regions would employ lemon, tamarind or vinegar. It is rubbed on to kebabs before grilling and may be used in this way with fish or chicken. The juice extracted from sumac is popular in salad dressings and marinades and the powdered form is used in stews and vegetable and chicken casseroles. "The seed of Sumach eaten in sauces with meat, stoppeth all manner of fluxes of the belly..." (Gerard, 1597) A mixture of yogurt and sumac is often served with kebabs. Zather is a blend of sumac and thyme use to flavour labni, a cream cheese made from yogurt.

Medicinal Properties

The berries have diuretic properties, and are used in bowel complaints and for reducing fever. In the Middle East, a sour drink is made from them to relieve stomach upsets. It cleanses the alimentary track and is especially useful in healing internal sores, ulcers and wounds on the mucous membranes.

Therapeutic Action

Bark: Astringent, alterative, tonic, vulnerary, antiseptic. Berries: astringent, refrigerant, diuretic, emmenagogue, diaphoretic, cephalic.

Plant Description and Cultivation

A bushy shrub of the Anacardiaceae family, reaching to 3m (10 ft). It has light gray or reddish stems which exude a resin when cut. Young branches are hairy. The leaves are pinnate with up to eleven serrated elliptic leaflets, hairy on the underside. In autumn the leaves turn to a bright red. White flowers are followed by conical clusters of fruit, each enclosed in a reddish brown hairy covering. Easily propagated by seed, sumac grows best in poor soils. In Sicily, where it is widely cultivated and grows wild in the mountains, its quality is found to increase proportionately the higher it is sited.

The staghorn sumac derives its name from the countless tiny hairs covering its branches and resembling the tines of a deer's antlers. Its fruit grow at the terminus of new growth in very large, upright bunches of small, red berries. These small fruit are covered with red hairs and filled with a sour juice rich in malic acid and tannin. Fruit should be gathered soon after turning red, as the longer the remain on the bush the more tasteless they become. Fully ripe staghorn sumac should taste sour.

Encyclopedia of Spices