History Bites: Sumac

SUmac SPice

All About Sumac

So you may have noticed this week that we’re making a bit of a big deal about sumac. The reason is we wanted to shine a light on an ingredient that most people aren’t incredibly familiar with, don’t know how to use, and are unaware of how cool of a plant it really is.

Commonly used in Middle Eastern cooking, sumac has a bright lemony taste. Before the Romans introduced Europeans to the lemon, this was the spice that was used to give foods that tang. You can find different varieties of it at any spice market in the Middle East. It’s used in everything from meatloafs to salads. It’s even commonly found in spice shakers on tables for when food needs that little zip. Long story short, it’s delicious.

SPice Market
Sumac is a flowering plant from the cashew family, and for those of you with a penchant for science or Latin, that’s the family Anacardiaceae. But I bet you can’t say that five times fast. Globally, there are over 250 varieties of sumac.

With its common uses in Middle Eastern cooking, you’re probably thinking that it can only grow in hot arid climates. But did you know this wonder spice I speak of actually is found pretty close to home?

That’s right! Have you ever seen these guys hanging out on your walks in the late fall?

SUmac FLowerThat’s sumac, baby. The Ottawa area is littered with sumac trees, specifically staghorn sumac. Which makes it a great candidate for foraging. 

Before we go any further, a wee disclaimer. 

If you aren’t familiar with something, you shouldn’t forage it. Make sure you have somebody with you who knows what they’re doing. Be warned that there’s also a poison variety of sumac that grows in Ontario. It looks pretty different from staghorn sumac, with white berries instead of red, but it’s in the poison ivy family, so if you’re very sensitive to that, it’s generally not advised to go messing about a sumac tree. 

I’ll also be sharing some of the traditional medicinal uses for sumac, but remember that this isn’t medical advice. I think it’s obvious that I’m not a doctor. I have about as much working knowledge of medicine as those old timey doctors who prescribed cocaine and smoke enimas for everything. I’m not blowing smoke here folks.

Blowing SMoke

Now, let’s get into it.

The part of the plant that is harvested for spice are the berries, which are dried and crushed. But there’s a lot more to this plant than just the berries. 

Indigenous peoples have had uses for this plant long before colonization. The Ojibwa and Iroquios both used the fruits for beverages. If you’ve ever heard of Native Lemonade (sometimes called pink lemonade), this is what it is. The video lower down in the post will show you how it’s made. The Iroquois also ate the young shoots of a particular variety of sumac.

According to my edible and medicinal plants guide, the fruits were boiled to make a wash to stop bleeding after childbirth. They were also used to make tea for treating bowel issues and diabetes, as well as a wash for treating skin problems and even ringworm. A root tea was made to treat painful urination, and the roots themselves were used to treat sore throats. The branches have been used to treat tuberculosis. Other uses for various parts of the plant include the treatment of diarrhea, dysentery, open wounds, mouth pain, and apparently gonorrhea and syphilis. Although, again, I can’t recommend using it for that… especially for those last two. 

The coolest thing about sumac is that it’s very easy to forage. The above video gives you a quick rundown on how to find them, and what you’re looking for. But again, if you’re not 100% sure, just don’t try it.

I for one will be grabbing myself some of these berries when the time is right. It’s easy to find, as it grows commonly along roads, paths, and open areas such as trails and clearings. It goes for $15 for like 8oz in a lot of stores, and if you’re able to do it yourself for free while reducing your overall carbon footprint... why not?

So keep your eyes peeled when you’re out for a walk. Your new favourite spice could be right around the corner.

Until next time.
Stay hungry,

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