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HomeNutritionWhat is Sumac Spice? - Sharon Palmer, The Plant Powered Dietitian

What is Sumac Spice? – Sharon Palmer, The Plant Powered Dietitian

Wondering about sumac spice? Fragrant sumac is a traditional, colorful spice from the Middle East, which can add rich flavor and color to your cooking. Learn all about sumac spice in this guide.

When I think of the Mediterranean, vivid colors, bold flavors, and vibrant aromas immediately come to mind. If I close my eyes, I can just picture myself sitting on a veranda overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, feeling the soft winds blowing off the coastline, and slowly savoring a tasty treat. Global foodways and cultures have always been an interest of mine, and the rainbow of different cultural spices never ceases to please my palate. And fragrant sumac spice is one of my favorite traditional spices, with it’s deep rich red color and flavor that suits Mediterranean cooking perfectly.

The recipe for Fattoush Salad from California Vegan features sumac.

What is Sumac?

Sumac seasoning is one of those spices that looks just as intriguing as its name suggests. In fact, the name “sumac” was actually derived from the Aramaic word “summaq”, meaning dark red, as sumac is a red or purplish-red powdered spice made from the berries of sumac. Sumac is most widely used today in the Middle East and the Mediterranean, particularly in countries such as Iran, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, and Sicily. It originally came from Greece, and is still evident in Greek cooking, as ground sumac is used as a rub for grilled foods, and as a flavoring for stews, pita wraps, salads, and rice and vegetable dishes. Sumac is also used in za’atar, which is a traditional Middle Eastern blend of herbs, sesame, and salt. Check out one of my favorite recipes using za’atar here.

Throughout history, the Romans used sumac juice and powder as a souring agent, while the Native Americans would gather red sumac berries from the sumac plant and dry them for a food source over the winter. One of the most famous uses for sumac is in fattoush salad, which is a Middle Eastern salad with lettuce, tomatoes, grilled pita and a sumac dressing. Check out my Fattoush Salad in my new book California Vegan. Sumac is native to parts of the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and North America.

There are two varieties of sumac, and it’s important to know the difference because one variety is poisonous. The poisonous version has white berries and hangs in clusters, looking similar to white grapes. When contacted with the skin, it produces a blistering red rash similar to that produced by poison ivy. The non-poisonous variety of sumac has red berries that grows at the end of branches, which is the one used for spice.

This recipe for Greek Mizuna Salad with Sumac Spice Vinaigrette includes sumac.

Sumac Health Benefits

Sumac spice may have nutritional benefits, which have been explored in research studies for the past few years. One particular study, published in the Journal of Food Biochemistry, investigated the antioxidant capacity of water extracts of Sicilian sumac, along with extracts of a number of other spices, including barberry, cardamom, black pepper, red pepper, fennel, laurel, turmeric and nutmeg. Among the tested spices, sumac had the highest antioxidant capacity. Another study that was published in the Iranian Journal of Pharmaceutical Research reported that people with type 2 diabetes might be able to gain health benefits by adding this spice to their diets. At the end of the three-month trial period, patients who had been taking 3 grams of ground sumac daily had significantly lower levels of blood glucose, apolipoprotein B (“bad cholesterol”) and HbA1c (a marker of blood glucose control over time). At the end of the trial, the sumac group also showed increased levels of total antioxidant capacity and apolipoprotein A-I (a component of “good cholesterol”). Research also has shown that sumac is rich in gallic acid (which has anti-fungal, anti-viral, and cancer fighting properties), and quercetin (an anti-inflammatory agent with anti-cancer effects).

What Does Sumac Spice Taste Like?

There are many great ways to use this gorgeous spice in your day-to-day cooking, as sumac has a wonderfully subtle lemony taste that correlates beautifully with a seasoned rub, and is most likely to be enjoyed sprinkled over warm bread or a salad with olive oil. It also can be substituted for chili powder in many recipes due to their similar colors and textures. Even though you may not be as familiar with sumac, it’s sure to spice up any meal! You can buy sumac at health food stores, gourmet food shops, or online stores.

For other blogs on plant-based cooking, check out the following: 

10 Essential Plant-Based Cooking Tips
Benefits of Cast Iron Cooking
5 Simple Plant-Based Cooking Strategies

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