What is Sumac and How Do You Use It?

Sicilian Sumac, Sumach ARABIC: Sammak FR: Sumac

GER: Farberbaum, Sumach IT: Sommacco SP: Zumaque BOT: Rhus corioria FAM: Anacardinaceae ILL: Plate 7, No. 2

Sumacs are known to gardeners as decorative plants, but the leaves of some species are grown as a source of tannin for the leather industry. One of these, Sicilian sumac (grown commercially in Sicily and southern Italy), has sour seeds which are used extensively in Middle Eastern cooking. This sumac grows wild there on the rocky mountains, away from the coast, and the higher up it grows the better the quality. Almost all houses in the Lebanon would keep a stock of sumac seeds. They are either ground to a red-purple powder or used whole, in which case they are broken, soaked in water for fifteen to twenty minutes and then squeezed out thoroughly to extract the juice.

What is Sumac and How Do You Use It? Photo Gallery

Sumac is sour, with a pleasantly astringent taste. It was used by the Romans (lemons had not yet arrived in Europe), and they called it Syrian sumac.

Today sumac is used in the Middle East to make a sour drink, much recommended for ‘gippy tummy’. However, its great importance is as a souring agent in Arab recipes in which it is preferred to lemon. The extracted juice is used in salads, the ground powder in dishes such as that spicy fish stew, samak el harrah, much as tamarind is used as a souring agent in Indian curries. (Do not confuse the Arab word sammak = sumac, with samak = fish.)

Sumac ought to be better known. It can sometimes be bought in the form of a red powder from shops that specialize in Lebanese or Jewish food. I have used it myself, ever since I discovered it some years ago, for it has a rounded fruity sourness (due to malic acid as in sour apples) without the distinctiveness of vinegar or the brutality of tamarind or lemon.

The scarlet sumac (Rhus glabra), a roadside shrub in North America, bears clusters of bright red berries in August (the poison sumac produces strings of white berries) which were used by the

American Indians to make a sour drink. It seems probable that this sumac could also be used to prepare the Lebanese dishes and has the ancient connection between the Phoenicians and America anything to do with its use in both places? Do not confuse this species with another American sumac, the various species of the genus Toxicodendron, which is poisonous to the touch. These are smooth bushes with green-white berries and are found in swamps.

For recipes, see Mrs Kahayat’s Foodfrom the Arab World.

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