Sumac (also spelled sumach) is any one of approximately 250 species of flowering plants in the genus Rhus and related genera, in the family Anacardiaceae. Sumacs grow in subtropical and temperate regions throughout the world, especially in Africa and North America.
Sumacs are shrubs and small trees that can reach a height of 1–10 metres. The leaves are spirally arranged; they are usually pinnately compound, though some species have trifoliate or simple leaves. The flowers are in dense panicles or spikes 5–30 centimetres long, each flower very small, greenish, creamy white or red, with five petals. The fruits form dense clusters of reddish drupes called sumac bobs. The dried drupes of some species are ground to produce a tangy purple spice.
The fruits (drupes) of the genus Rhus are ground into a deep-red or purple powder used as a spice in Middle Eastern cuisine to add a lemony taste to salads or meat. In Arab cuisine, it is used as a garnish on meze dishes such as hummus and is added to salads in the Levant. In Iranian (Persian and Kurdish) cuisine, sumac is added to rice or kebab. In Turkish cuisine, it is added to salad-servings of kebabs and Lahmacun. Rhus coriaria is used in the spice mixture Za’atar.
Sumac has a tart flavour that is very nice sprinkled on fish, chicken, over salad dressings, rice pilaf, or over raw onions. Try substituting in any dish on which you might squeeze fresh lemon juice. If you enjoy hummus, try topping it with a sprinkling of sumac. It’s delightful!
Sumac is considered essential for cooking in much of the Middle East; it served as the tart, acidic element in cooking prior to the introduction of lemons by the Romans.
Sumac has a very nice, fruity-tart flavour which is not quite as overpowering as lemon. In addition to their very pleasant flavour, flakes from the berry are a lovely, deep red colour which makes a very attractive garnish.
Availability and Substitutes in Australia
- Usually sold as a coarsely ground powder and is generally available in supermarkets
- Substitute with lemon zest and salt or for salads use lemon juice