Step aside, turmeric. It’s the return of the (su)mac.

By Betty Gold
August 13, 2019
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The ancient herb sumac—made from ruby-colored berries that are ground into a beautiful, coarse powder that bursts with color and flavor—has been underappreciated in American cooking (if you immediately thought of poison ivy, you’re wrong!) for centuries. We’re here to fix that.

If you grew up in a Middle Eastern household, however, you probably have a very different sumac story to tell. “You’ll know it as a souring agent that’s an excellent substitute for lemon or vinegar, and is great to use on kebabs, fish or chicken,” says Tenny Avanesian, an Armenian American Food Entrepreneur and Founder of Lemonette. “It’s been used to add tangy, fresh flavors in Lebanese, Syrian, Armenian, and Iranian cooking for many millennia, and you could not walk through a street food marketplace of centuries past (even today) without seeing it everywhere around you.”

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According to Tenny, sumac is the secret ingredient in endless Middle Eastern mezzes, salads, rice dishes, stews, and kebabs. It’s also the primary element and focal point of za’atar, a very popular and timeless Middle-Eastern spice blend of sumac, oregano, thyme, sesame seeds, and marjoram. And thanks to its beautiful, rich, deep red color, sumac is the perfect finishing touch for dips, vegetables, grains, and more.

How to start cooking with sumac

Sumac is ideally used in place of (or in addition to) lemon juice or lemon zest when making dishes like salads, hummus, marinades or dressings, tzatziki, or baba ganoush.

You can also sprinkle it atop basmati rice, grain salads, pita chips, or any type of flatbread (or use it as way to pump up the flavor of store bought breads or chips). Add it to roasted vegetables, fried or scrambled eggs, or incorporate it into roasted nuts. Rub sumac on meat, fish, or poultry—if you’re grilling them, even better. Shall we go on?

Yes. Because sumac also goes extremely well with mint. “Two salads in particular, Shirazi Salad (in Iranian cuisine) and the Fattoush Salad (in Arabic cuisine) both add sumac and mint to their dressings,” says Tenny.

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Health benefits of sumac

Sumac is one of the most powerful anti-inflammatory spices out there. It ranks high on the ORAC chart, which means it's packed with antioxidants and has the ability to neutralize free radicals that can cause cancer, heart disease, and signs of aging.

Sumac is also a beneficial ingredient for those with type 2 diabetes. Studies have shown that daily intake of sumac for three months will lower the risk of cardiovascular disease among people with type 2 diabetes.

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