Spice support: sumac

Although sumac is most closely associated with Middle Eastern foods, the plants that produces the tart berries, the Rhus genus of the Anacardiaceae family, grow all over the world. You can learn this fact and more as Eater’s Sylvio Martins takes a deep dive into sumac, which he says can be a “secret weapon” in your spice arsenal.

The fuzzy red berries of the various sumac bushes are the edible part of the plant. The sumac plants that produce white berries are poisonous, warns Martins, so avoid those. Although various types of sumacs grow all over, the ones typically used for culinary purposes are Rhus coriaria and Rhus typhina. The former originated in the Mediterranean and is widely cultivated across southern Europe and the Middle East.

One of sumac’s magic powers is that it allows you to add acidity to food without incorporating additional liquid. This acidity is clean, without any bitterness or astringency that you often find with other tart foods. Martins describes the flavor of sumac as similar to the “tang of fresh-squeezed lemon juice; it’s tart and sharp, but also contains a hint of sweetness, along with lingering floral notes.” Sumac also acts as a meat tenderizer, and in North America the most popular traditional use was to make a refreshing beverage, similar to a lemon or limeade. It is a major component in the spice blend za’atar.

The EYB Library is filled with terrific recipes that utilize sumac, which typically comes as a powder. Here are a few of the most popular:

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