I stumbled upon sumac without knowing what it was. Sumac, to me, is an ornamental tree with big reddish velvet looking tops sticking up at the end of each branch. Branches are thick, few and each is strong and sturdy. They’re also high and I could not reach them.
After I used a couple of the tops for dyeing cotton I red in the Ottolenghi recipe book that sumac was needed. Only then did I make the connection. I started to read a bit more and figured I needed some extra sumac to get me through the coming year. Of course I could order online but how much fun is that for a forager?
With a custom made rod used for fishing I set off.
What I learned
- sumac does not resemble anything like a berry nor does it look edible
- gather the sumac tops at the end of summer before the heavy rain has set in
- do not gather tops with mold or infested with insects
- it takes effort to get the hairy particles (the edible part) off the tiny seed (what is thrown out)
The process of deriving sumac
You need a colander with as small holes as possible (something like a big tea sieve), two bowls and some spoons
- separate the velvet clusters from the stem
- the velvet clusters separated, place them in a bowl
- rub them in a circular movement against the inside of the colander which is placed over another bowl
- this process takes long before you get a heap of the actual sumac spice you will use
- the sumac spice you will use is pressed through the colander while the seeds stays behind in the colander
The seeds comes off easy by just rubbing them.
With a bit of effort separate the stalks so you only keep the pink velvet fluffy ‘balls’.
They’re tiny and your hands will smell delicously after handling them. Try licking your fingers now : )
The photo above and below shows the seed where the sumac spice was attached to. These are not used for consuming.
Photo below shows the end product: sumac ‘berries’ ground spice, ready to be eaten.
What is sumac? This wine-colored ground spice is one of the most useful but least known and most underappreciated. Made from dried ‘berries’, it has an appealing lemon-lime tartness that can be widely used. In Iran, they use it as a condiment, putting it onto the table with salt and pepper.
The dried and ground berries from the sumac tree have a citrus, lemony flavor and dark red color. Use for a sharp, acidic kick to vegetables, chicken or seafood.
A quick Google check
Question: are sumac berries edible?
Species with red berries, the smooth and fragrant sumac, produce edible berries. While species with white berries have poisonous berries. Poison sumac fruit are creamy white and so at once to distinguish. Typically, they are around 4 to 5 millimeters (0.16 to 0.20 inches) in size. The fruit and leaves of the poison sumac plant contain urushiol, an oil that causes an allergic rash upon contact with skin.
Question: how can you tell poison sumac from regular sumac?
Poison sumac has clusters of white or light-green berries that sag downward on its branches, while the red berries of harmless sumac sit upright. Also, each stem on the poison sumac plant has a cluster of leaflets with smooth edges, while harmless sumac leaves have jagged edges
Question: is sumac good for you?
Sumac is rich in a variety of nutrients and antioxidant compounds. Early research suggests it may be beneficial for blood sugar control and relief of exercise-induced muscle pain.
Sumac is reported to have several medicinal benefits. American Indians used it to treat colds, fever and scurvy while also grinding the berries mixed with clay and using as a salve on open wounds. Sumac has also shown to have benefits for treating diarrhea, dysentery, sore throats, infections, asthma and cold sores.
Question: how long should sumac steep for preparing a tea?
Besides using sumac as a condiment it can be consumed in a tea or made into a lemonade. Let steep for 30 minutes or up to 2 hours and strain through a fine strainer or cheese cloth. Serve cold or hot. Sumac has a real tartness and is used somewhat like lemon in the Middle East where it is a very common spice.
‘It’s been used to add tangy, fresh flavors in Lebanese, Syrian, Armenian, and Iranian cooking for many millennia, and you could not walk through a street food marketplace of centuries past (even today) without seeing it everywhere around you.’
Since Ottolenghi’s cookbook uses za’atar, a Middle-Eastern spice blend of sumac, oregano, thyme, sesame seeds, and marjoram, I was now able to ‘make’ this spice myself. Sumac is the primary element and focal point of za’atar and thanks to its beautiful, rich, deep red color, sumac is the perfect finishing touch for dips, vegetables, grains, and more.
Question: how to start cooking with sumac?
Sumac is ideally used in place of (or in addition to) lemon juice or lemon zest when making dishes like salads, hummus, marinades or dressings, tzatziki, or baba ganoush.
You can also sprinkle it atop rice, grain salads, chips, or any type of flatbread. Add it to roasted vegetables, fried or scrambled eggs, or incorporate it into roasted nuts. Rub sumac on meat, fish, or poultry. Sumac also goes well with mint. Two salads in particular, shirazi salad (in Iranian cuisine) and the fattoush salad (in Arabic cuisine) both add sumac and mint to their dressings.
Question: are there health benefits of sumac?
Sumac is one of the most powerful anti-inflammatory spices out there. It’s packed with antioxidants and has the ability to neutralize free radicals that can cause cancer, heart disease, and signs of aging.
Sumac is also a beneficial ingredient for those with type 2 diabetes. Studies have shown that daily intake of sumac for three months will lower the risk of cardiovascular disease among people with type 2 diabetes.