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Foraged Flavor: Wild Sumac

Forage or shop for sumac and learn how to use sumac in spice blends, healing remedies, and seasonal recipes, such as a refreshing sumac lemonade.

| Fall 2016

  • Gather fruit of the sumac shrub in fall, as soon as the fruits turn red.
    Photo by Fotolia/Chas53
  • Za'atar, a Middle Eastern spice mixture, is often combined with olive oil and drizzled over bread.
    Photo by Fotolia/Quanthem
  • You can roast and grind your own sumac fruits.
    Photo by Fotolia/Oliver Wilde

Recipe: Sumac Lemonade

One man’s pest is another man’s pearl. Dandelion root and flowers may be considered pesky weeds. Nettles may seem like the most unlikely side dish. The wild sumac bush (Rhus spp.) may look like just another roadside shrub. The resourceful can find uses for sumac as both food and medicine.

Cooks from many countries, including Turkey, Italy, and Israel, have revered sumac fruits — commonly referred to as berries but technically a stone fruit or drupe — for more than a thousand years. And yet, the fruits are hardly something to make a meal or snack of; they’re smaller than gooseberries, contain almost as much pit as fruit, and have very little fragrance. They aren’t even sweet! What sumac fruits do have going for them is a brilliant purple-burgundy color, a tart and tangy taste, and many therapeutic applications.

Soothing medicine

Sumac leaves and fruit are classified as astringent and cooling. Certain Native American and First Nation tribes know how to use sumac to treat bladder, digestive, reproductive, and respiratory ailments; infections; injuries; stomachaches; wounds; and more. The Ojibwe (Chippewa) make a decoction of sumac flowers to treat gas, indigestion, and other digestive upsets. The Iroquois use sumac as a laxative, diuretic, expectorant, liver aid, and in countless other applications. The powdered bark and dried fruit can be combined with tobacco and smoked for ceremonial purposes. The inner bark is also used to treat hemorrhoids.

Early pioneers used the fruit to reduce fevers, and they steeped and strained the fruit and thickened the mixture with honey to yield a soothing cough syrup. Some transformed the fruit into wine. Others used the root to produce an emetic tea (to induce vomiting), the bark to make dye, and the leaves to relieve symptoms of asthma.

Sumac fruits contain malic acid, which possess antifungal properties and putative anti-fibromyalgic activity; tannic acid, which is present in tea and wine and is known for its astringent properties; and gallic acid, a white crystalline compound used in dyes, in photography, and in ink and paper manufacturing.

Uses for Sumac

Prior to the importation of lemons in Europe, the ancient Romans supposedly relied on sumac’s fruit for a sour taste. Throughout the Middle East, even today, many people use sumac seasoning, and know how to use sumac as a primary souring agent in cooking, or as a decorative garnish at the table. The small fruits are dried, lightly dry-roasted, ground to a powder, and sifted to remove the hard, inedible seeds and soft, downy fuzz. Fresh fruits are soaked in water for 15 to 20 minutes, or entire fruit clusters (with attached fuzz) are pounded in water, then drained and squeezed through cheesecloth to extract their ruby juices and antioxidants. The powder keeps — far longer than lemons — at room temperature; the juice may be refrigerated or frozen. A squeeze of sumac juice can replace lemon in your favorite recipes, particularly if you suffer from citrus allergies.

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