You may hear Sumac and immediately think of poison sumac. The spice sumac is not from the same plant as the poison sumac, although they are from the same plant family. As a matter of fact, the sumac used as a spice grows wild, mainly in the Middle East, so there is no problem with running afoul of the wrong plant, here in the US. The sumac commonly used as a spice in the Middle East is from the plant Rhus coriaria. The poison sumac found in the US is Rhus vernix. They are from the tropical or subtropical cashew or sumac family of trees, shrubs and vines, all bearing drupes, or fruits with a single stone or seed.
Sumac bushes grow wild in all the Mediterranean countries, in Sicily and southern Italy and especially the Middle East countries, notably Iran, Lebanon and Turkey. The parts of the plant used are the dried and ground berries which are an essential part of Arabic cooking. The dried and crushed fruits yield a reddish powder, preferred over lemons for its fruity sourness and astringency. Sumac can be sprinkled into dishes as they are being cooked, macerated in hot water and mashed to release flavor, or mixed into spice mixtures, most notably the Middle Eastern spice mixture called Zahtar. The use of sumac in cooking closely parallels the use of tamarind or dried green mango powder in contemporary Indian and Indonesian cuisines. The fresh berries can also be made into a refreshing drink similar to lemonade. In the US, there is a relative to this sumac, Rhus Glabra, mainly used in the tanning industry, but Native Americans also used the red berries to make a refreshing drink.
While all this is interesting, one may be wondering what to do with this spice, should it be acquired. An acquaintance made chicken kebabs, by cubing chicken breasts and marinating them for a minimum of a half hour in a mixture of 1/4 cup plain yogurt, the juice of 1 lemon, salt and pepper to taste, 2 or 3 smashed cloves of garlic and 1/2 teaspoon dried dill. She was lamenting that to make this dish as she would have in her home country, she would have added sumac. I replied that I just happened to have some. Not knowing the amounts she would need, I brought her about a quarter cup worth. She dumped the entire amount into the marinade. After marinating, she threaded the chicken onto skewers and grilled to desired doneness. These kebabs were truly excellent in flavor.
Another use is in the spice blend called Zahtar, Zaatar or Zatar. As this is a Middle Eastern mixture made with a west Asian species of marjoram generally not available outside the region, the substitution is thyme or oregano, for US cooks. Ratios vary from recipe to recipe.
4 tablespoons ground sumac
2 to 4 tablespoons raw sesame seeds
1 to 2 tablespoons each dried oregano, thyme and or marjoram.
1 teaspoon salt
The sesame seeds may be left raw, or toasted lightly in a dry frying pan, stirring constantly, until they begin to pop. Remove from heat immediately and pour out onto a plate to cool, as they will continue to roast off the heat. Grind together all ingredients with a mortar and pestle or in a spice grinder and store in an airtight glass jar in a cool dark place for up to 3 months.
This is a very basic recipe, with many possible variations. Some use only thyme, without any oregano or marjoram. Some use only oregano. Some use salt in the mixture and some add pepper, and some do not use salt or pepper. Other recipes contain spices such as coriander. Try making a batch and see what proportion works best for your taste. The recipe can be doubled or tripled, as needed. Now that you have it, try using it mixed with olive oil as a dipping mixture for good bread. Brush pita bread with oil and sprinkle with Zahtar and bake until heated through. Sprinkle over hummus, yogurt or cheese. It can be used to spice up most any dish. Avocado, notoriously bland, can be spiced up with Zahtar. Use it on anything that needs a little kick.
Sumac can be used in a shaker on the table to sprinkle onto foods such as rice or to lend a pleasant fruity sour note and soft reddish color to sauces, poultry or fish, or sprinkle it on meat before grilling. Sumac also has purported healthful properties. A sour drink of sumac is made to relieve stomach upsets. It is also said to have diuretic qualities and may be helpful with reducing fever. Whatever its use, find some sumac at a reputable spice shop and try it out. You may be surprised at its usefulness.
About The Author
My name is Chris Rawstern and I have been on a cooking and baking journey for 42 years. Many people have asked what A Harmony of Flavors means. Have you ever had a meal where the visual presentation was stunning, the smells were incredible, the taste was so remarkable that you ate slowly savoring every bite, wishing the experience would never end? Then you have experienced what a truly harmonious meal can be like.
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