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May 6, 2013 12:46 PM

Sumac, the spice and the shrub

What part of the sumac plant is the spice and how is it prepared/dried? I assume it's the red "flower" spikes, but is the middle eastern/eastern european/greek sumac spice from the same variety of plant that grows into huge, wild shrubs in the upper midwest?

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  1. The dark red berries from the shrub make up the spice. They are harvested during periods of low rainfall (which improves flavor) before being dried and ground.

    The variety of sumac that grows in the Midwest that some people use as a tisane is Rhus typhina. The variety that grows wild in the Middle East is R. coriaria.

    11 Replies
    1. re: JungMann

      I bought sumac in the Spice Market in Istanbul and don't have a clue what to do with it :) But I also bought a cookbook so will find uses, I'm sure, but anything you want to share is always appreciated.

      1. re: c oliver

        There was a recipe on Epicurious for scallops that I saw recently that looked good. I've also seen it called for in Za'atar blends.

        1. re: mike0989

          Mmm, doesn't that sound good. Thanks and saved :)

        2. re: c oliver

          Sumac's tart, sort of citrus-y flavor is refreshing when it's sprinkled on tzatziki (or cacik, if you're thinking Turkish) or a cucumber and tomato salad, and adds brightness to roast chicken, for starters.

          And I can't recommend this recipe, which was a universal hit from a recent COTM, Ottolenghi and Tamimi's Jerusalem, enough (but chop the dates smaller, about the size of the chopped almonds):

          1. re: Caitlin McGrath

            Loathe cucumbers so those are out :) But the Jerusalem one sounds great. Saved.

            BTW, can you imagine the size of the yogurt containers in Turkey. They made me laugh.

          2. re: c oliver

            One of the more common uses for sumac in the Midwest is to steep it in water overnight, strain and sweeten to serve like lemonade.

            You can use sumac anywhere you want the tart lift of lemon without the liquid. Personally I use it as a condiment like salt and pepper. It is the red powder that goes atop hummus. Mix it with olive oil, slather it on hot bread and go to town. Try it with roast potatoes or other vegetables. Add it to your salad dressings for fattoush or onions. Add it to lamb kebabs or meat pies. Use it in spinach pies for a distinctive Middle Eastern flavor. It adds a nice note to cheeses or yogurt, in fact some of my favorite uses for sumac are in Turkish yogurt dishes like cilbir or manti. Musakhan, Palestinian roast chicken, also calls for a ton of sumac. If you are feeling creative, you can also mix it with thyme, sesame seeds and salt for homemade za'atar.

            1. re: JungMann

              Cool. You make manti?!?!?!? My Turkish-born friend highly recommended it but we never found it. At the end of our trip, we were told it's more a lunch dish. Just found this recipe:

              1. re: c oliver

                I don't make manti at home. If I am craving those flavors, I make the meat filling, serve it atop pasta and finish it with the yogurt sauce, brown butter, Aleppo pepper and sumac. Close enough.

              2. re: JungMann

                We did it on the East Coast and called it Indian Lemonade

              3. re: c oliver

                I love using sumac to sprinkle on dairy or creamy soups.

            2. The spice is dried berries.

              There are quite a few species of sumac with the type used in middle eastern cooking being different from the staghorn sumac common in the midwest. I have no idea whether the latter have edible let alone nontoxic berries.

              1 Reply
              1. re: Eldon Kreider

                Staghorn sumac berries are edible: my nephew harvested some and made a tart lemony drink with them for a Boy Scout project. The cultivated one may have been bred for better taste, though.

              2. Thanks for the replies. It looks like (via wiki) that the type of sumac I am acquainted with is used in the steeped beverage that has been mentioned, so that at least makes me comfortable that it isn't toxic. Whether ground as spice/seasoning will be comparable to the real thing remains to be seen. I think i will make point of "harvesting" some this season to compare with what I can get at Penzey's.

                I was making kofte which is what got me wondering...

                1 Reply
                1. re: splatgirl

                  Absolutely great on kofte - we use it literally heaped onto luleh (Armenian spiced kebab, very similar to kofte of various kinds). Best with lots of lebneh (thick, high-fat yogurt).

                2. I recently bought a bag of sumac labelled "sumac for soup". It appears to be the whole berries and not just the ground powder. I ground some up with my mortar and pestle, and found that while the outer layer turned into the red powder I'm familiar with, each berry had a rock hard seed in the middle that I couldn't break (and wouldn't want to put through a spice grinder for fear of dulling the blade). Are these really used whole in soup or any other application? Do the seeds soften when cooked? I would worry about chipping a tooth. Or should this be saved for the lemonade-like drink?

                  And is there a way to grind the suckers other than using a mortar and pestle and then sifting out the seeds? Because this process is horribly tedious and takes a lot of work for a very little bit of ground sumac.

                  1. Sumac flavor, to me, is a milder version of tamarind.