Sumac is a Middle Eastern spice – quite tart and lemony. It is black in colour. Fresh and tangy, it comes from the berries of the wild sumac bush that grows in all Mediterranean areas, especially in Sicily and southern Italy, and parts of the Middle East, especially Iran. It also grows in North America.
It is an essential ingredient in Arabic cooking, being preferred to lemon for sourness and astringency. It was also used by the Romans for tartness before the introduction of lemons. It has almost no aroma.
The small and hairy berries are dried and crushed and a coarse purple-red and aromatic powder results. It is sour, fruity and astringent but not at all hot. It keeps well if kept away from light and in an airtight container.
Sumac is used widely in cookery throughout the Middle East, especially in Turkish and Lebanese cuisines. In these areas it is an essential souring agent used where other regions might use lemon, tamarind or vinegar. It is also an essential ingredient in za’atar.
A small amount of finely grated lemon rind with a little salt can be substituted for the sumac. Amchur is also suitable. In emergencies, lemon juice, vinegar or tamarind can be used in small amounts.
You only need a little and it is pairs well with tomatoes and avocados. It can also be mixed with yoghurt and fresh herbs and served as a dipping sauce or side dish. It is good dusted over feta cheese or added to a salad. Stir it through olive oil and serve with crusty bread.
Image from SBS, with thanks.