1,001 Arabian bites: why is sumac the spice that gets no respect?

If there’s one spice capable of decorating and delineating the entire culinary anthology of the Arab region, it’s sumac.

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On my kitchen island is a little cluster that looks like a diorama of Sheikh Zayed Road in the 1980s. A small bowl of sour sumac is at home here, next to the salt cellar and a squat canister of sugar, like proselytes at the foot of two pillars, black Tellicherry and hot red Pequin peppers. Still, the sumac stands alone, inspiring confusion and tentative hands. There’s no reason to fear sumac, though, and with every meal I cook, I find it more resourceful.

If there’s one spice capable of decorating and delineating the entire culinary anthology of the Arab region and its neighbours, it’s sumac. Suave and mutable, it’s the vital pucker in za’atar and fattoush and the happy trail on hummus that travels to all the places where the brashness of lemon cannot reach. Its tartness is milder and more nuanced than citrus, with plummy notes of unripe raspberry, lending it beautifully to preparations involving fruits like pomegranate and tomato.

Sumac is a deep red rubble that ranges in colour from brick to black cherry, but its presentation is more dramatic than aromatic, and it lacks any discernible odour unless you bury your face in it, as compared to, say, the feral sillage of cumin. That’s part of its chameleon-like charm.

Despite a fair amount of media coverage – Alton Brown called it his official spice of 2102 – sumac has yet to be embraced in the United States as other Middle Eastern ingredients have been, such as za’atar, Aleppo pepper and the Maghribian hot pepper paste, harissa. In his Spice Hunting series on the website Serious Eats, Max Falkowitz praised his beloved seasoning’s versatility: “Sweet and sour, bitter and fruity, it’s the saving grace for the unapologetically lazy cook, a Swiss army knife of finishing touches.”

While poison sumac and edible sumac are distinguishable by the colour of their clusters, many a sumac grove has been razed out of fear that all sumac is toxic. But Native North Americans soaked sumac berries in water to make a bracing quencher, and thirsty modern foragers use sumac to make a syrup to stir into sparkling water or lemonade.

You’ll find fried eggs with sumac on breakfast tables in Lebanon and Turkey. Yogurt is a must here, as sumac’s natural affinity for dairy makes it a stunning addition to labneh and yogurt. The Dubai-based chef Silvena Rowe’s version of Turkish suzme involves making rochers (or quenelles) out of strained yogurt, which she mixes with soft goat cheese for the ultimate advantage, and then rolling these creamy treats in sumac so that it forms a thin garnet crust – and a truly great appetiser.

There are few vegetables that can’t be improved with a generous dusting of sumac. But nothing – at least nothing I’ve tasted – is finer with sumac than onions, raw or cooked. Toss raw onions with sumac for a sandwich topping that mimics a quick pickle. And then put aside an evening, invite your nearest and dearest, and make musakhkhan. The Palestinian national dish showcases both sumac and the magic of braising at their greatest. You can find the markouk bread, also known as “shrak” or “saj”, at any decent Arab bakery, and if you’re sacrilegious, like me, you might attempt the dish with lamb instead of chicken: one of the best bad things I’ve ever done. Most importantly, though, don’t skimp on the sumac.