Run out of lemon? Use Sumac instead!

The world of spices is full of colourful and flavoursome surprises. Not only do spices add depth to your dishes, they also hold medicinal properties few of us are aware of. Sumac is one such spice.

What I love about spices, is not just the colour and flavour, or even their medicinal properties, but it is their power to transform a dish. If stored correctly, they last for a long time, and can be a great replacement for fresh products that may not always be available to you, either because you forgot to buy some, you ran out or they are simply out of season.

One such spice is Sumac.

What is Sumac?

Sumac originates from the Middle East, (East) Africa and North America. It belongs to the same family as cashew and mango plants and grows mostly in subtropical climates. Reportedly, there are over 200 species of Sumac, some of which are poisonous.

The origin of the name is believed to derived from the 13th century French word for red, and the Mediaeval latin sumach.  The Sumac Rhus Coriaria (which you might have heard it being referred to as Syrian Sumac) is a small tree or shrub which produces reddish fruits called drupes. The drupes are ground to a reddish-purple powder which are then used as a spice.

As mentioned above, there are also non edible and poisonous varieties of Sumac which are distinguished by their white fruits or drupes.


Nutritional Properties of Sumac

A 2014 study of the Sumac found that in the dried powder form, Sumac is made up of approximately 71% carbohydrates, 19% fat (including both oleic and linoleic fat) and 5% protein.

Sumac is rich in antioxidants such as tannins, anthocyanins and flavonoids and the North American variety of Sumac (Rhus Glabra or Smooth Sumac) has also been found to contain Vitamin C and gallic acids which help fight bacteria including that of E.Coli , candida, fungus and viruses.

These nutritional properties might be why Sumac has traditionally been used to help prevent diseases, and promote health.


Medicinal Uses of Sumac

Sumac in powdered form can be consumed as a spice, like you might vanilla or cinnamon, although it is most often used raw and not cooked. However, it can also be found in tincture and supplement form which of course will contain a much stronger concentration of its nutrients. This is particularly helpful if you are looking to ingest Sumac as a medicine, where you may require a more than a pinch sprinkled over your food to be able to fully benefit from its healing properties.

Medicinally, Sumac has been used to:

- promote heart health. The oleic fat it contains is the same healthy fat found in olives and avocadoes. 

- promote healthy skin – this is thanks to its linoleic fat content.

- lower blood pressureRhus Coriaria has been tested in scientific trials and results have shown it has hypotensive properties which are attributed to its flavonoid content.

- reduce inflammation and lower oxidative stress- Sumac is rich in antioxidants (tannins, anthocyanins and flavonoids), all of which help to fight oxidative stress.

- balance blood sugar – according to some recent studies it can reduce 25% of circulating insulin

- reduce muscle pain – studies have shown that a post workout drink of sumac juice helped alleviate the pain faster than in the control group.

- reduce cholesterol – this has been especially found to be the case in animal studies where the sumac was consumed alongside ginger.

- fight bone loss and osteoporosis – a limited number of studies have shown this to be the case, although more studies are needed to confirm this.


More traditional and holistic uses of Sumac

If the list above is not enough to convince you about its health benefits, you should know that Sumac has been used not only in the West, but also in Chinese medicine and in Native American Medicine, among others, for an array of healing purposes:

- to detoxify, by opening the pores to promote sweating and elimination of toxins

- to strengthen the kidneys,

- to relieve and prevent diarrhoea,

- to fight colds, flu and infections of the mouth and digestive tract,

- in North America, a decoction of Sumac flowers was traditionally seen as a remedy to soothe an upset stomach, to treat gas and indigestion

- Native American Tribes such as the Cahokias, and the Meskwakis in Iowa, grew it and used it to regulate the cycle and prevent cramps,

- In Traditional Chinese Medicine Wu Bei Zi, or Chinese Sumac, is believed to clear toxins, moisten the lungs, clear heat, fight the formation of phlegm and other symptoms of a cold, and is generally used to balance the lung and liver systems. TCM associates both cooling and soothing properties to sumac.


Other (non-food) uses of Sumac

But this plant has not been used solely for medicinal purposes, or in indeed in cooking. Some other Sumac plant species have also been used for tanning in the leather industry, and as a dye in the textile industry, to name but two.


Sumac in the kitchen

Part of the pleasure of eating lies not only in the taste buds, but also in the attractiveness of a well presented dish. Sumac is a great way to add a splash of vibrant colour to your plate. It might be because of this, or maybe because of a combination of its visual appeal alongside its sour, tangy flavour reminiscent of lemon, that Sumac has graced Middle Eastern dishes through the times.

In the Middle East, Sumac is sold alone, as well as part of a blend with salt and/or other spices. It is often seen on egg dishes, sprinkled liberally on grilled meat, fish and vegetables and on all those foods where freshly squeezed lemon might be called for. Sumac is also used in rubs, sauces and dressings in soups, over rice dishes…. The list is endless.

In some parts of the world it forms the basis of a juice, sumac lemonade and various other drinks.

Personally, I like to sprinkle some over poached eggs, grilled chicken and soups, to add flavour as well as colour, to replace fresh lemons and sometimes in lieu of salt, at least in part. Sumac, like spices in general, is great to add an extra layer to a dish and is a versatile spice everyone should try at least once.


A last word of caution

However, before you venture out to forage your own, or, if you don’t have the luxury of having fields of spices close to you down to your local grocer’s, there are some things you need to keep in mind.

As mentioned at the beginning, there are many different species in the Rhus family and not all of them are edible. The  (American) species of Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix - previously known as Rhus vernix) and commonly referred to as Poison Sumac, is poisonous. Luckily, it is also easy to distinguish from edible species by its white drupes (or fruits) rather than the edible red berries used to make the spice.

Having said that, even the red variety should be consumed with caution if you are a diabetic as it can reduce up to 25% of circulating insulin. Similarly, since it belongs to the same plant family as cashews and mangoes, those people allergic to these foods may experience allergic reactions to sumac.

Despite this, the health benefits far outweigh the list of negatives and it is a spice that should probably be sitting on all spice racks alongside the vanilla and cinnamon. It is worth remembering next time you are looking through the spice section of any well stocked shop. Sumac is especially good to have as a go to when you’ve run out of fresh lemons and/or salt, with a much longer shelf life.

Whatever you sprinkle your first taste of Sumac on….enjoy!

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