Sumac spice is a popular spice in many Middle Eastern countries, as well as other parts of the world used in meat, vegetable, and rice dishes to give a sour flavor.
Sumac spice is derived from the fruit of any number of trees from the genus Rhus, the principal of which is Rhus coriaria.
Rhus coriaria is part of the family Anacardiaceae, or the cashew family and is native to the Mediterranean region of the Middle East, Sicily, and some parts of central Asia.
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It is found in subtropical and temperate regions all over the world, including the United States, where it is an invasive species.
The name sumac comes from an Arabic word summaq, which means “red,” the color of the sumac fruit. The fruit of other species of sumac is also used to derive the spice.
Sumac fruits are small red drupaceous fruits (drupes), also called bobs, which are dried and sold whole or ground. Before drying, the whole berries are soaked in water before being squeezed to extract their juice. The dried fruits are ground to make a purple powder which has an astringent sour flavor. This spice powder is used in much the same way as tamarind or lemon juice, basically as a souring agent. For this reason the fruits are sometimes called lemonade berry. It is said the Romans used sumac before lemons were available. Sumac is called vinegar tree by the Germans, and “sour condiment” by the Dutch.
Ground sumac spice is widely used in Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Israel, Syria, Lebanon, and other parts of the Middle East. It is often used to season kebabs, other grilled meats like whole roasted lamb (khouzi), as well as fish stews, or rice dishes.
It is part of the spice blends zahtar (za’atar)), and dukkah. In Lebanon and Syria, it mixed with sesame, thyme, and other spices, boiled, and then used as a lemon substitute for flavoring drinks, and many dishes. It is also used in many dips.
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In North America, there are some varieties of poison sumac. These only grow in wetlands are are actually very rare, much less common than poison ivy, a relative. The species of sumac called Rhus vernix may be called Toxicohendron vernix, when viewed in relation to its other poisonous relatives, such as poison ivy or poison oak. It is sometimes called thunderwood. The many different species of rhus are still being shuffled around, and it is not clear yet how many species will actually remain as rhus. Rhus vernix/rhus toxicohendron (poison sumac), Rhus toxicohendron/Toxicohendron radicans (poison ivy), and Rhus diversiloba/Toxicohendron diversilobum (poison oak) all have a chemical called urushiol, and although which causes a severe a allergic reaction in many people. The fruits of poison sumac are white instead of read, and are poisonous to eat.
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