What Is Sumac And What Does It Taste Like?

Using sumac in your cooking may not be as commonplace as paprika or chili powder, but it is an excellent spice that can lend flavor, depth, and nutritional benefits to a slew of dishes.

Grown on shrubs in Turkey, Iran, and Italy, sumac comes from a vibrant, crimson berry that is dried and then ground into a coarse powder, according to Taste Of Home. While the fragrant spice is typically sold as a ground seasoning, the berries can also be purchased whole. Processed, ground sumac has a darker hue than its berry counterpart. The color of sumac is so distinct that it's actually named after the Aramaic word summaq, which means dark red (via The Spruce Eats).

This grounding process also gives the spice a slightly textural note, not dissimilar to minuscule coffee grounds. When added to dishes, sumac lends a tart, floral, and slightly acidic note that is akin to lemon. Sumac is often used in Middle Eastern cooking and its primary claim to fame is its inclusion in the oft-used spice blend za'atar.

The history of sumac

According to The Spruce Eats, sumac has been used in various capacities for at least 2,000 years! In North America, sumac was used for numerous medical needs by indigenous peoples, including caring for people after childbirth, soothing asthma, aiding gastrointestinal issues, healing wounds, and treating tuberculosis (via Cook's Info). Furthermore, Food Republic notes that many indigenous peoples throughout North America would even use sumac to create drinks very similar to beer. Many cultures even have beverages such as teas or even "sumac-ade," which is a lemonade-esque drink that is said to boast a multitude of nutritional and healing benefits.

Cook's Info also noted that its tart flavor is connected to the malic acid that is on the surface of the berry itself. Sumac does not offer the same lip-puckering sour bite that lemon does — it's more of a subtle, tart brightness. MasterClass says that the most common varieties sold include fragrant sumac and smooth sumac. The publication recommends raw vegetable salads, kabobs, fattoush, and tahdig. It blends well with other spices, is an important inclusion in meat rubs, and a classic finishing spice topping on feta, hummus, labneh, or baba ghanoush. Sumac is also an excellent addition to roasted nuts, popcorn, vinaigrettes, and even desserts! In addition to its tart flavor, sumac also adds a beautiful color to whatever it is sprinkled on. 

What are the benefits of sumac?

Sumac contains many antioxidants, which are said to have cancer-preventing properties and may help to slow aging, prevent heart disease, and mitigate the risks of cardiovascular diseases, according to The Spruce Eats. It also has high vitamin C and gallic acids, which may help to boost the immune system and guard against myriad ailments, and it's also very helpful for the digestive system, according to Iowa Herbalist. Furthermore, it may promote balanced blood sugar and alleviate muscle pain (via Healthline). 

Perhaps one reason that sumac is not as ubiquitous as some other spices is because of its connection to the poisonous shrub, but rest assured: the ground, dark red spice is totally safe to consume. Now that you're well acquainted with the burgundy spice, try it out in your next meal! We're confident that it'll become a favorite in your spice cabinet in no time.