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.
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.
Ground sumac may be rubbed onto meat kabobs prior to grilling or sprinkled over raw onions, casseroles, or cooked vegetables for a sumac seasoning. Stirred into yogurt, sumac makes a pungent sauce for lamb kabobs. Sumac juice adds zest to citrus-free salad dressings or rice pilafs.
Za’atar, a blend of ground sumac, thyme, marjoram, and sesame seeds, is used to flavor labni — a creamy spread made from drained yogurt. It’s also sprinkled over meat and vegetables or blended with oil and smeared on bread in Turkey and North Africa. Look for Za’atar in Middle Eastern markets or online.
Hunting for Wild Sumac
Sumac is a deciduous or evergreen shrub or shrublike tree that grows wild throughout the Mediterranean, South Africa, Asia, northeastern Australia, and in North America. Small bushes and shrubs may range from 6 to 12 feet in height; taller sumac trees may reach 23 to 33 feet. There are many varieties of sumac. Mention sumac, and at least one person is sure to ask about poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix). Like its cousins, poison ivy (Toxicodendron rydbergii) and poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum), poison sumac contains an oil resin, urushiol, which creates contact dermatitis that causes lesions and an intense itch. Should you decide to go foraging, you’ll need to know how to discern the edible from the poisonous. Poison sumac bears white fruits in small clusters. Avoid ingesting any white-fruited sumac. You can learn more about identifying poison sumac by visiting the websites listed above, under “Know Your Sumac.”
Edible sumac species include smooth sumac (Rhus glabra), staghorn sumac (R. typhina), fragrant sumac (R. aromatica), winged sumac (R. copallina), lemonade sumac (R. integrifolia), littleleaf sumac (R. microphylla), sugar sumac (R. ovata), and skunkbush sumac (R. trilobata). All nonpoisonous species contain red fruits when ripe and are sometimes inaccurately and collectively called “red sumac.”
Sumac leaves contain featherlike, lance-shaped leaves with sharp-toothed margins, and are grouped in pinnated compounds with 11 and up to 31 leaflets attached to stout but soft wood branches. The hard, berrylike fruits are found in upright cone-shaped clusters, and some varieties are covered with a velvety fuzz that’s rich in vitamin C and ascorbic acid.
Sumac should be gathered in fall as soon as the fruits turn red. If left on the tree for too long, much of the flavor will be lost.
Where to Buy Sumac
You can buy whole, dried sumac fruits (marketed as “berries”) from herb or specialty stores, or from the sources listed on “Buy Sumac” (keep reading). For the best flavor and fragrance, briefly roast the fruits in a hot, dry skillet, stirring until the spices start to crackle and smoke briefly. Roast until darkened, about two or three minutes, after the fruits start crackling. Exact time will depend upon the type and size. Allow to cool, then grind in a mortar with a pestle (the hard way) or in a small electric spice-dedicated coffee grinder (the easy way). Sift the roasted sumac fruits through a fine mesh strainer to remove the hard, inedible pits that could otherwise crack a tooth. Or, for convenience, purchase ground sumac. Some companies add salt to facilitate grinding, although I have not found this necessary. Ask before you buy, particularly if you follow a low- or no-salt diet. Store dried sumac fruits and the ground spice in an airtight jar at room temperature.
The Great American Spice Company
Note: Also provides Za’atar
Seasoned Pioneers, Ltd.
Note: Also provides Za’atar
The Spice House
Know Your Sumac
Websites to help identify (and avoid) poison sumac.
Rachel Albert was a freelance food and health writer, cooking coach, and natural foods cooking instructor. Look for her book, The Garden of Eating: A Produce-Dominated Diet & Cookbook.