I love to experiment with new spices especially one I can plant and have it return year after year for my endless enjoyment. My most recent venture into the land of perennial foods is sumac. No, I’m not talking about the poisonous version that gives many people a rash. There are poisonous and non-poisonous varieties of sumac. Steer clear of varieties that bear white seed and don’t chance it if the plant is not producing and there is no indication of berry color. Sumac is related to poison oak and poison ivy and they grow in the same type terrain.
A. Doolittle of Painesville, Ohio described sumac berries as, “sour, very, very sour”, with seeds of “pure cussedness” yet in some cultures processed sumac berries are an indispensible spice. They predate the Roman introduction of lemons into Europe and native Americans used them in a number of ways.
Indians and colonists alike used the staghorn sumac to make tea and a cooling liquid later called sumac “lemonade”. There is a variety of sumac in the western U.S. known as lemonade sumac because it was so commonly used to make the beverage.
Gary Paul Nabhan has stated he prefers the red ripe berries of lemonade sumac to stale Middle Eastern spice and Tama Matsuoka Wong says staghorn sumac is less toasty and more citrusy than smooth sumac (also red drupes). “It even retains its red color when dried, providing an appetizing pop of color when sprinkled over foods with insipid hues of beige and cream”.
“Staghorn sumac, Dwarf sumac, as well as Smooth sumac may all be used; however, be certain that you are gathering densely clustered berry-like RED fruits, not the white ones of poison sumac”. Staghorn sumac has bristly hairs on the drupes and branches. It is native to North America.
Middle Eastern countries enjoyed the flavor of sumac as much as the American Indians having gathered wild red sumac for countless generations.
Sumac is mixed with other ingredients, usually sesame seeds and thyme, to make a spice called za’atar.
Edible varieties, “all have red berries”. “The acid berries of these shrubs [sumac] are eaten by Indians and occasionally by whites, and a rather pleasant beverage can be made from at least some of them. Their slender twigs are very important in basketry work among the Indians…”.
Elias Yanovsky wrote that the Indians crushed the fruit to make cooling drinks, ate the fruit, and peeled fresh roots which were eaten raw. He documented the drying of the fruit for use in winter.
Numerous sources note Native Americans combined sumac with tobacco for smoking and settlers and hunters took up the practice as well. Blends called kinnikinnick were prepared in a myriad of ways. The blends sometimes included the inner bark of dogwood, bearberry, and even poke leaves. As late as the early 20th century, the practice continued. One magazine published a claim saying smoking the dried leaves would relieve the symptoms of asthma. “Gather the green leaves while fresh, dry them, and smoke in a common clay pipe”.
During the late Victorian era into the early 20th century sumac gathering helped ease the financial burden for many country families. Men, women, and children would camp out, pulling sumac leaves by day and singing, playing music, telling stories, or visiting about the campfire as supper cooked in the evening. The sumac was sold to sumac mills that ground it into powder and sold it to be used in tanning leather or dyeing fabric.
Sumac berries produce a nice red color when dyeing cotton and were used in combination with other dyestuffs to produce different colors. “To dye Olive for wool. For 5 pounds goods [wool yarn] take 2 pounds fustic and a little sumac; boil them ½ hour in water sufficient for the goods, then add this to 5 ounces logwood with 10 ounces alum and 4 ounces madder, and enter the goods and boil 1 hour. Cool and darken with 5 ounces copperas.”
Sumac tea and “sumac-ade” are made by crushing the berries and soaking them in hot or cold water. The flavor becomes strong when boiled due to the release of tannins. It is advisable to strain a sumac beverage through cheesecloth to remove stray seeds and fuzz that comes off the drupes.
To make sumac spice, gather the red sumac berry clusters before rain washes the flavor out of the hair-like covering on the berries. It may be a good idea to let them dry in a warm place overnight, especially if you plan to keep the sumac spice for some time. Separate the berries from the stems. Put the berries through a food processor until the red powder is separated from the seed. Use a colander or strainer to separate the red powder from the seeds. Discard the seeds. A cup of berries will produce maybe 1 to 1 ½ teaspoons of sumac spice. For a blend, add dried thyme, oregano, marjoram, lightly toasted sesame seed, and grind together.
Readers may wonder how sumac spice is used. The sumac powder or the spice blend is rubbed onto meat prior to cooking or sprinkled on at table. Various cultures put it on fish, kebabs, vegetables, flatbread, salads, etc.
Cut potatoes into large pieces, drizzle with olive oil, shake on salt, pepper, ground sumac berries, dried or fresh chopped thyme, and crushed garlic. Toss and roast until tender and browned. Other vegetables may be used in place of potatoes (zucchini, eggplant, etc).
[Rustic vegetarian quiche made with garden fresh squash and herbs, two cheeses, eggs, bechemel, and seasoned with sumac. Delicious!]
Make a salad of chopped cucumbers, parsley, onion or chopped scallions, sliced radishes, purslane leaves (if available), and tomatoes and dress with lemon juice and/or vinegar, salt, pepper, oil, and ground sumac. It goes well in chickpea and black bean salad.
Rub your favorite cut of meat, chicken, or fish with oil, season with a dry rub made from ground sumac berries, salt, pepper, and dried thyme. Chopped parsley and garlic are optional per taste. Roast or grill until done. Sprinkle it on seafood.
If you like the flavor, possibilities are almost endless in what you can do with sumac. Mix the sumac spice blend with good olive oil and eat with pita or bread. Mix the spice blend into hummus dip. Add sumac to homemade pasta dough. Make baked or grilled kafta (or meatballs) and season with the spice or blend.
Season lentil soup/stew; roasted chickpeas; dolmas (stuffed grape leaves); make sumac jelly as a substitute for cranberry sauce; combine sumac berries and water and place in the sunshine for an upgraded sun tea; combine mixed nuts, sumac spice, cumin, coriander, salt, pinch of pepper and chili powder with 2 tablespoons of oil or coconut oil and roast them; add it to rice, use it in marinades, or make a salad of quinoa and lentils and dress with oil, vinegar, and sumac spice or blend.
Last but not least, I can’t end this without the gardener in me mentioning how easy it is to grow sumac, almost too easy. It spreads from suckers that grow around the bush and can quickly get out of hand if left unattended. Sumac can be controlled by mowing it, digging, or pulling up the suckers but any gardener who seriously doesn’t want something that might be hard to control might consider planting it in a large pot or containing it by putting down a root barrier a foot or so deep around the area where it is planted. If you don’t want to dig and transplant it from the wild it can be ordered online.
© Copyright 2017. Please do not reprint or redistribute without the author’s permission. A lot of time and effort goes into my research. Thank you.
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Nabham, Gary Paul. “Cumin, Camels, and Caravans: A Spice Odyssey”. 2014.
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Hodge, Frederick Webb. “Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico”. 1912. ©