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What Is Sumac? The Hidden Ingredient Of The Middle East

Maria Foster
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by Maria Foster

If you often sit down to enjoy Middle Eastern cuisine you’ve likely come across sumac in certain recipes. 

What Is Sumac

Sumac is a delicious red pepper that is used in a range of different Middle Eastern dishes, including fattoush salad and lamb kofta. 

So, have you ever wondered what sumac is exactly and how to use it in your dishes?

In this article, we have compiled all of the information you need on sumac, the secret ingredient of the middle east! Let’s dive in

What Is Sumac?

Sumac is a spice that is added to many dishes. It is native to many different parts of the world including Africa, North America, and Asia and it is grown on a flowering plant. 

These plants can grow in lots of different environments, including open woodlands and coastal areas.

Sumac contains lots of essential nutrients that are beneficial to the health of both humans and animals.

The leaves of the Sumac plant contain lots of protein. Sumac is also rich in antioxidants and vitamins which help promote a healthy lifestyle. 

Sumac is also often used as a natural dye for certain fabrics. It has been used around the world for hundreds of years and it is a very important natural resource!

What Does Sumac Taste Like?

Sumac is very commonly used as a spice in many different Middle Eastern dishes. It is often used to season meat or used in salads to add flavor. 

Sumac has a lemon-like taste which is quite tart. 

Sumac Uses

Sumac is used in lots of different ways. It is a very versatile resource that has many fantastic uses. These include: 

In Certain Dishes 

The taste of the spice is a great addition to lots of different dishes. It is commonly used to flavor meats or salads. Sumac is also used in certain soups and stews to add flavor. 

Sumac is also used as the main ingredient in certain spice blends including advieh and za’atar. 


The leaves of the sumac plant are often used to brew tea. The dried berries from the plant can also be used to flavor tea.

Tea is a very popular drink all over the world, and sumac is a common ingredient in lots of different teas. 

Medicinal Properties 

Sumac has many different medicinal uses. It contains lots of antioxidants, so it is used to relieve inflammation.

You can use sumac to treat inflammation by crushing the berries and applying it topically. 

Sumac spiced tea has been used as a home remedy, too. It has been known as a treatment for indigestion.


Sumac is very high in vitamins and minerals making it very nutritious. For this reason, it is a great addition to any diet.

Skin Care 

Sumac is also used in skincare products. It is often added to exfoliating scrubs or face masks to help nourish the skin. It will leave your skin feeling glowing and smooth! 

Natural Dye 

Sumac also makes a fantastic natural dye for fabric. It will turn your fabric red or orange when it is used effectively as a dye. 

Cooking With Sumac

In the Middle East, sumac is used to add a tang to certain dishes. It is high in acidity, making it a great pair to dishes like lamb and chicken.

It cuts through the richness of the dish, evening out the flavors.

Sumac also works very well in salad dressings, marinades, and homemade dips. They are elevated by this delicious spice. 

Sumac is also delicious when it is added to your favorite hummus, giving a delicious additional flavor to the snack.

You can also use sumac in desserts. Simply add a pinch over your favorite ice cream or cookie! It adds a delicious acidic flavor to these desserts.

How Do You Grind Sumac?

What Is Sumac

To use Sumac in the ways listed above, you will likely need to grind it before use. This is a simple process that only requires a few simple pieces of equipment. 

You will just need a mortar and pestle, a bowl, and some sumac berries! 

Follow the steps below to grind your sumac:

  1. First, place a tablespoon of berries into the mortar. They can either be fresh or dried berries. With your pestle, press down on the berries and grind them until it develops into a powder. 
  2. Then, continue grinding the berries until they form a smooth powder.
  3. After you are satisfied with this, transfer the sumac to a clean bowl or an airtight container to store until you are ready to use it!

Once you have ground your sumac you can add it to your dishes for a delicious, subtle flavor. 

Try using it as a seasoning for fish or chicken. 

Sumac can also be used as a substitute for lemon juice due to its similar flavor.

Sumac Substitutes 

There are lots of different things that you can use in place of Sumac. There are lots of things that taste similar to the spice that is made from the sumac plant! 

Lemon Juice 

Lemon juice is a very common substitute for sumac. If you are following a recipe and don’t have any sumac, replace it with lemon juice! 

You can opt for using lemon juice, dried lemon peel, or lime. The sour flavor of sumac is similar to the flavors of lemon or lime.

Hibiscus Flowers 

If you are looking for a substitute for sumac, you could opt for hibiscus flowers. They are slightly sweeter than Sumac but will work well. You could also opt for crushed apple skins or lime juice. 

You can also use red wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar, or tamarind as a substitute for sumac.

It is recommended that you experiment with lots of different flavors and incorporate them into your cooking until you find the one that you enjoy the most.

Certain substitutions will work better according to your tastes and cooking style.

Where Can You Buy Sumac?

You can purchase sumac spice in lots of different places. In Middle Eastern stores, you may be able to sell both ground sumac and sumac berries.

You may be able to get this spice in some grocery stores, too.

When you purchase sumac spice from stores, it can often be mixed with food coloring, citric acid, and other spices.

Sumac is not expensive to buy and it makes a great addition to lots of different dishes. It is great when it is used as part of a recipe or in a dish that needs some additional flavoring.

What Is Poison Sumac?

Poison sumac is different from sumac that you can eat. It is a different color, as the berries are white. The edible type of sumac has red berries. 

You will find the poisonous variety of Sumac in damp and swampy areas of the US. Just as with poison ivy and poison oak, sumac contains the toxin urushiol. 

The whole sumac plant contains urushiol which makes the plant poisonous, and even the stem of the plant and the leaves are poisonous.

If you happen to brush against the plant, you may be left with an itchy red rash.

How Should You Store Sumac Spice?

When sumac is stored correctly you can keep the ground spice for several months. If you have whole, dried sumac berries, they will be kept for over a year.

If you store this sumac in an airtight container and away from light and heat, then it will last much longer. Keeping the spice in an unheated pantry will work very well in this instance.

Health Benefits Of Sumac 

Sumac is a very powerful anti-inflammatory. It is filled with antioxidants and it also can neutralize free radicals that cause heart disease, aging, and cancer.

If you consume Sumac daily, this will lower your risk of developing cardiovascular disease. This is the case specifically among people who suffer from type 2 diabetes.

How To Identify Edible Sumac Berries 

Sumac berries come from the Rhus Coriaria shrub, and there is a high number of edible parts of this shrub in certain areas of the Mediterranean.

These plants have cone-shaped clusters of white or red berries. However, it is important to remember that the white berries are poisonous and the red berries are edible. 

You should look out for poisonous berries on the wet ground because they grow in these areas.

If you pick the berries from the edible shrubs when they are ripe, they will smell like lemon but not as strong!

Where Can You Find Sumac?

Some sumac shrubs can be found in Turkey or certain parts of Iran. They go by the name Rhus Typhina, and they are lesser-known berries that are found in North America. 

You can also find variations of the sumac berry in Canada and Mexico. They are used to prepare cold teas named sumacade, which is pronounced in a very similar way to lemonade.

Final Thoughts 

So, there you have it! If you’ve been wondering what sumac is and where it comes from, you’ve come to the right place.

You should now have all the information you need on this delicious spice so that you can be an expert on it. Add it to some of your delicious recipes to enhance the flavor! 

About Maria Foster
Maria Foster
Maria Foster is a mother of 3 and she and her husband of 23 years share their home with 2 faithful dogs. Besides being CEO of the household and active in her community, Maria is the lead contributor to Food Champs and loves to try new food ideas and kitchen accessories to make easier and more delicious meals.
Maria Foster
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