What do you think of when you hear ‘sumac’? I think: “Isn’t that similar to poison ivy?”
But clearly I’m mistaken.
This is a guest post originally written in 2011. Always on the lookout for great recipes for foraged food, I came across the website First Ways which is all about “urban foraging and other wilderness adventures”. FirstWays’ creator Rebecca Lerner recently found her neighbor cutting down sumac plants and decided to save them for cooking. Apparently the berries can be dried and ground like black pepper – this I have to try!
With Rebecca’s permission I have reposted her article here.
How (and why) to eat Sumac
by Rebecca Lerner
When you say you’re going to eat sumac, people often respond with worry. “That’s poisonous!” they say. They are thinking of poison sumac, which is related but looks very different. Poison sumac has smooth leaves and spaced out white berries, while edible sumac has tightly clumped red ones and jagged, toothy leaves (as above). The species pictured is an edible one, Rhus typhina, known as staghorn sumac. It was growing in direct sunlight near my apartment on a shrub that was 10 feet tall with a fuzzy stalk.
I took that photo of a sumac fruit a couple days ago. This afternoon, the tree/shrub was gone.
I was out walking my dog, Petunia, when I saw a neighbor cutting down the landscaping outside his house. I (politely) intercepted. He pointed me to the debris pile and I was able to dig out the fruit before they ended up in the city’s yard-waste collection bin, fortunately. My plan is to do what Middle Eastern chefs do and dry the berries, and then grind them up into a spice powder that lasts all year without refrigeration. I could then sprinkle it on rice, hummus, kebabs, etc. Sumac tastes slightly sour, tart and citrus-like, very similar to a lemon.
Sumac is native to the Mediterranean. It now grows here in the States — often as an ornamental — in the northern and middle parts of the country from coast to coast. Sumac contains calcium, potassium, magnesium, citric acid and antioxidants, according to this plant physiology study conducted by the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. Sumac bark is useful medicinally as an astringent tea for anti-diarrhea purposes. It’s also antibacterial. You can read more about medicinal applications here.
Another thing you could do with sumac fruit: Make a lemonade substitute by immersing the berries in cold water, rubbing them to release the juice, and then leaving them for several hours to soak and infuse into the water. Then strain and drink it. You could freeze the liquid in ice cube trays and use it year-round like lemon juice. “Wildman” Steve Brill’s Wild Vegan Cookbook offers several interesting recipes for sumac concentrate.