By Micah Cheek
If you haven’t tried sumac before, the flavor can be hard to pin down. The dried and crushed fruit of the sumac plant is described as tart but not sour, and a combination of lemon, tart cherry, and earthy flavors. “We have people that come in saying ‘Oh I just tried this food, it was sour and so good, it was lemony and complicated…’ and we just stand there until they finish and say, ‘Yeah, that was sumac in there,’” says Anne Milneck, Owner of Red Stick Spice Company in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Sumac is a top seller at Red Stick Spice Company partly because Lebanese and Greek restaurants are popular elements of Baton Rouge’s culinary scene, says Milneck, who has begun seeing more interest in sumac as more Middle Eastern and Mediterranean restaurants open and customers try to replicate dishes at home.
Traditionally, sumac has been used in a wide variety of Middle Eastern dishes. Salads, roasted meats, bread and rice can all be liberally sprinkled with sumac for an acidic tang. “You can use it with any platter. [It has] a delicious taste, at the same time it’s appealing to the eye,” says Safa Najjar Merheb, author of “The Pure Taste of Lebanon From Safa’s Kitchen.”
A classic pairing is sumac with lamb. The gamey richness of lamb is cut by sumac’s tartness. Milneck notes that the spice will perform the same on any gamey meats, such as duck or venison. Sumac can also be used with flavors that traditionally play nicely with lemon, as reflected in a Turkish fish stew with sumac. The spice can be used as a dry rub on chicken.
Sumac is also a popular addition to mild sides. “I’ve also heard about sumac on more bland vegetables like cauliflower,” says Milneck. “Some people are doing cauliflower rice and then using sumac in there, which is not so off the wall, because sumac is also used on rice pilaf.” Merheb suggests mixing the spice into stuffing for grape leaves, eggplant and squash.
Dukkah, an Egyptian condiment that includes crushed nuts, coriander and cumin, and the spice blend za’atar both depend on sumac. Za’atar is a popular condiment in Arabic cuisine, with wildly varying recipes that all contain sumac, thyme, and sesame seeds. Manakeesh, a traditional Lebanese snack, is made by spreading a paste of za’atar and olive oil onto pita dough before baking.