Blog Archive

Monday, March 10, 2008


Sumac: A Culinary Treat

Thirty odd years ago when I first moved to Abu Dhabi, I didn’t know what they were, but I knew I liked them. That was my first reaction to the tangy, lemony red sprinkles on my salad which I couldn’t identify. A little investigation showed them to be ground sumac berries, which are commonly used throughout the Near and Middle East to impart a haunting astringency to kebabs, salads, rice, yogurt, spice blends, and more. Since that time, I have added them to everything from soup to dessert.

The spelling may vary (summaq, sumach, sumak, summak, sommacco, somagh, zumaque, sammak—all deriving from the Semitic root SMQ, which denotes something dark red), but the lively tart flavor sumac gives, sings loudly in any cuisine where it is used. Although not particularly fragrant or aromatic, the flavor the berries impart serves as one of several souring agents common throughout the Near and Middle East; others are pomegranate, tamarind, dried black
lemons, and hibiscus flowers.

Culinary sumac (Rhus coriaria L.) belongs to the Rhus genus and is related to the Anacardiaceae family, to which mangoes, cashews, and poison oak also belong. Coriaria refers to the Latin word for leather, corium, reflecting the use of the leaves and bark in the tanning process. The spice, which is considered an essential ingredient in Arab cooking, comes from the dark red berries of a bush that grows wild throughout the Mediterranean. Ripened on the tree and dried in the sun, the berries are usually sold in ground form, whose color may vary from light red to a deep crimson to a dark purple.

Warning: People with a sensitivity or allergy to mangoes or cashews, should also approach culinary sumac with caution. Never use white sumac berries, which are poisonous.
Medicinal Uses
Often used to help with digestive and bowel problems, sumac is said to be diuretic. As an appetite stimulus, the seeds are sometimes eaten before a meal.

Early Native Americans and North American settlers used other varieties of sumac for a wide variety of ailments. All parts of the plant were used, roots, berries, bark, and leaves to treat conditions ranging from fevers, colds, urinary disorders, hemorrhoids, warts, fever blisters, conjunctivitis, and even diabetes. It appears in various guises in folk medicine from poultices to stop bleeding to decoctions used as a treatment for venereal diseases. Apparently, the leaves were smoked in the Appalachians to relieve the symptoms of asthma.

Other Uses and a Little History
As a dye, the leaves have been used to produce brown, the roots for yellow, the berries for grays, the barks for reds, and the seeds for blacks, though sources differ as to what color is produced by which part. As mentioned before, the plant was also used for tanning. Some Native Americans split the bark for use in basket making. An oil, extracted from the seeds, has a tallow-like consistency useful for candle making. And the powdered bark can also be made into an antiseptic skin salve.

Dioscorides, the Greek physician and botanist who lived in the first century AD and who served as physician for Nero’s armies, mentioned sumac’s diuretic and antiflatulent properties in his five-volume De Materia Medica, the precursor to all modern pharmacopeias. As a souring agent used like lemon juice or vinegar, the ancient Romans used the sumac berries from the trees that are common all over Sicily and southern Italy and it is still called “the vinegar tree” in parts of North America. One intriguing reference said that the ancient Romans even used it as form of birth control, though it didn’t explain how.

In North America if was used historically as a dried food in winter and for various medicinal cures. And because the plant was used to foretell the weather and the changing of the seasons, some Native American tribes considered it sacred.

Research shows that phytochemicals found in Rhus coriaria (ellagic acid, gallic acid, quercetin, tannic acid and others) have antibacterial, antidiarrheic, antidysenteric, antiseptic, antioxidant, and antiulcer properties. The active constituents in sumac are being studied as a possible treatment for TB, diabetes, and some cancer.
Culinary Uses
Sumac is used in cooking in various ways. Often it is simply provided as a condiment to be sprinkled on food at the table. In Turkey and Iran sumac is often put on the table in shakers or bowls, especially in kebab houses, to be added to meats and rice much as salt and pepper are used in the West. In other Arab countries, particularly in the Levant, sumac finds its way to the table mixed with sesame seeds, salt, and thyme or hyssop in the popular spice mix called za’atar. In Egypt it sometimes appears in another spice mix called dukkah (spelling varies).

In addition to being used as a condiment, it is also commonly rubbed on meats, chicken, or fish, added to marinades, and used to punch up the acidity in yogurt sauces or vinaigrettes. I particularly like it with eggs and in beet salads. And because it is pretty, it is used as a decorative garnish, much like paprika, on dishes such as hummus and other dips.

In some areas where it is grown, a refreshing drink similar to lemonade or hibiscus tea is made by adding clumps of freshly picked ripe berries to cold water. The berries are soaked for several hours, strained, and the remaining liquid is sweetened and served chilled.

Yet another use, perhaps less well known, is as a liquid, or souring juice, made from the soaked berries, strained and added to various dishes mainly at the end of the cooking time. One dish I learned to prepare from a Lebanese friend was a potato dish where ground sumac was soaked in hot water with a clove of crushed garlic and then added to cooked potatoes and onions which have been sautéed in olive oil. The water is absorbed by the vegetables whose looks are helped by the addition of color and whose taste is enlivened by the tartness of the sumac. A sprinkle of parsley or cilantro is my own addition to finish off the dish.

Potatoes with Sumac
(Recipe by Victoria Challancin)

2 tablespoons ground sumac

1/2 cup boiling water
1 to 2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced or pressed
1 pound of baby potatoes cut in half
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 tablespoons chopped parsley or cilantro

Place sumac in a small bowl. Add the boiling water and garlic. Set aside while potatoes are being prepared.

Cook potatoes in ample salted water. Cooking time will depend on the size of the potatoes. Drain well. Return to pot and cook, shaking often, for 2 minutes over medium heat to dry out the potatoes. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a skillet or sauté pan. Add onions and cook, stirring frequently until soft, approximately 5 minutes. Add potatoes and continue to cook until potatoes are soft and browned, about 5 to 7 minutes more. Remove from the heat and pour the sumac liquid over the potatoes. Allow the potatoes to macerate for 5 minutes to absorb the liquid. Season with salt and pepper and sprinkle with chopped parsley or cilantro before serving.

Variations: If a less pronounced garlic flavor is preferred, sauté the garlic with the onion. The sumac liquid can be strained or not before being added to the potatoes, depending on personal preference.

We prepared the following recipes in last week’s International Cooking Class for Mexican cooks:

Middle Eastern Minced Chicken Kebabs
(Recipe by Victoria Challancin)
Serves approximately 8.

Note: this is traditionally made with minced lamb and grilled over charcoal. It could be made into cocktail-size meatballs as well. Here I am using ground chicken thighs and legs. Serve in pita bread, over a rice pilaf, or even over a green salad with the yogurt sauce and pickled onions.

2 pounds ground chicken breasts or thighs
1 large onion, finely chopped

4 to 6 large garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
1 red or yellow bell pepper, finely diced
1 serrano chile, deseeded and finely chopped

1 cup cilantro leaves, chopped (or parsley)
2 teaspoons cumin powder
2 teaspoons ground coriander seeds
2 teaspoons ground sumac
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Sea salt to taste
Juice of one lime, or to taste
2 to 3 tablespoons oil

Mix all the ingredients except the oil together in a large bowl. Refrigerate for 30 minutes to 1 hour before using.

Form sausage-shaped kebabs with the chicken mixture.

Put a heavy skillet over medium high heat. Coat the bottom with oil. Once hot, add kebabs, cooking in batches so as not to overcrowd the pan. Cook for 4 to 5 minutes, turn, and cook until done. Continue with remaining kebabs.

Yogurt Sauce
(Recipe by Victoria Challancin)
Note: Greek yogurt, which is usually thicker, works well in this sauce.

1 1/2 cups plain yogurt
Juice of 1 lemon, or to taste
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 serrano chile, finely minced
3 plum tomatoes, seeded and diced
2 to 3 tablespoons fresh cilantro or parsley
Salt to taste

Whisk yogurt with lemon juice until smooth. Add all the remaining ingredients, and mix in well with a spoon. Adjust seasoning according to taste. Place in a serving bowl and sprinkle with extra chopped cilantro or parsley if desired.

Marinated Onions

(Recipe by Victoria Challancin)

1 red onion, sliced thinly lengthwise
Juice of one lime or equivalent amount of white vinegar

2 tablespoons cilantro, parsley, or mint
2 teaspoons ground sumac

Place onion, lime juice, and salt in a bowl. Allow onions to macerate for at least 20 minutes. Drain and toss with chopped cilantro. Sprinkle with sumac before serving.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good post and Smart Blog
Thanks for your good information and i hope to subscribe and visit my blog Ancient Greece and more Maps of Ancient Greece for Kids thanks again admin