Posted by: oysterculture | February 11, 2009

Special Ingredients: Sumac



The first time sumac and I were introduced was at Moby Dick’s House of Kabob  in Washington, DC, the location in Georgetown, if you must know.  I was having dinner with my friend, Sepideh, when she shook a liberal quantity onto her chelo kebab.  Not knowing what was in the shaker, it looked like ground pepper flakes, I proceeded with caution.  This meal was early in my eating adventures, and I was still smarting from my introduction to wasabi, that someone (a very evil person) told me was mashed avocado.  However, I knew my friend had an aversion to all things spicy hot, so I gave it a go.  I shook some on my chicken kabob, took a bite, and quickly added more… and more.  This stuff is tart, and kicks up the flavors like squeezing a lemon over your food.  For tasty surprises like this, I implicitly trust Sepideh with all things Persian, and especially kabobs.

Part of my reluctance stemmed from suspicion that sumac was poisonous.  Some sumac is, especially the variety grown in the United States as an ornamental plant – its highly toxic, and has white berries.  The kind found in Middle Eastern cooking, most definitely is not.  Although with over 250 varieties of sumac you’re bound to be lucky sometime.

sumac in its native state (photo from wikipedia)

sumac in its native state (photo from wikipedia)

Middle Eastern cooks use sumac extensively, especially in Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon.  When used as a condiment, its either plain, or mixed with sesame seeds and thyme leaves (Zatar).  Before lemons came from Europe, Romans used sumac to flavor their food.  As I mentioned, the flavor is citrusy or vinegary, but milder and not as acidic.  The dried sumac also had a dark cherry color which adds a nice touch to dishes.

During the Iranian new year, Now-Rooz, which falls on either March 21 or 22, depending on the year, the “sofreh-ye haft seen” or seven dishes are provided at the table.  They are seven symbolic ingredients and include soumagh or sumac, and represents the color of sunrise, and with the appearance of the sun good conquers evil.

Sumac from Belgium

Sumac from Belgium

 Here are some ways I like to use sumac (I make no claims for authenticity):

  • add to my humus
  • marinate fish in olive oil, garlic and sumac – grill
  • add to sauteed vegetables
  • tossed on a salad

If you have never tried sumac before, I strongly encourage you to run to your nearest Mediterranean grocery to get your hands on this spice.  Aysegul, of NYS Delight mentions her family’s store in New York City, or  the Balboa Market in San Diego, or Haigs Delicacies in San Francisco.  Penzey’s also carries it.

Chelo Kebab (photo from

Chelo Kebab (photo from

Iran’s arguably most famous dish is chelo kebab which has a long history in Persian culture.

Chelo Lamb Kebab

serves 4 to 6


1 1/2 lbs. ground lamb
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 egg
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. pepper
2 T flour
1 1/2 cups uncooked rice
4 T butter
Paprika (optional)
3 tomatoes, halved
Salt & Pepper, Sumac

Mix lamb, onion, egg, salt, pepper, and flour until smooth. Shape into oblong patties about 5 inches long, 1 1/2 inches wide, and 1 inch thick; set aside.

Cook rice; sprinkle with cold water, shake gently so grains do not stick together. Drain 5 minutes. Melt butter in frying pan and pile the rice in it in a dome shape; sprinkle with paprika if desired. Place over low heat  for 10 minutes to dry rice. Meanwhile, cook lamb patties in a broiler or on barbecue for 10 minutes on each side. Dot tomato halves with butter; salt and pepper and grill for ~ 8 minutes. Stack cooked lamb patties on rice dome; arrange tomatoes at bottom or on separate plate.  Serve hot.



  1. Thanks for a great intro to sumac! Love the lamb kebab recipe!

  2. I came across mention of sumac recently while reading the novel “Pomegranate Soup” (about 3 Iranian sisters who set up a cafe in the west of Ireland) and thought I should check it out (that and some other traditional middle eastern ingredients). I feel a little food shopping expedition coming on…

  3. My pleasure, it was a fun post to write, and I learned in the process

  4. The book you mention sounds like a very fun read. Did they talk about barberries in the book, as I plan to write a post on those tasty little morsels as well? Good luck on the shopping expedition and unlike me, I hope you can maintain some selfcontrol.

  5. I’ve tried sumac, but never cooked with it at home. There is a great spice market (called spice market) in nottinghill – do you know of it? I’m see if they have it there…I’m sure they do.
    Egg + kebab = yahoo!

  6. I think you’ll have fun. I have not been to the Spice Market, I’ve been to the Spice Shop, which I loved. The Spice Market might be new since I was there. Ah, I loved living in London and finding all the wonderful different shops.

  7. oops – Spice Shop – same place, I’ve been calling it the wrong name for months.

  8. I think Spice Market has more flare =)

  9. Can’t remember if they mentioned barberries in that book (I must go back and check) but I have stocked myself up with some of the other things mentioned, like rosewater and pomegranate syrup. Sumac next! 🙂

  10. You’re definitely on the right track. I’m working on my post for barberries. Sumac, of course, you know my feeleings =)

  11. This is a very good description of sumac. It is one of my favorite spice and it’s nice to hear that you know and tasted it. I love it especially on Hummus (I added its recipe on my blog two days ago). But I really didn’t know that it’s also used for marinating fish. I’m really surprised as I’m from Turkey.

  12. And I forgot to give my blog’s URL:

  13. Hi, glad you liked the description of sumac. I love the spice, but am surprised at the number of folks that have never tried it. The idea of marinating fish is definitely not traditional. I’ve done it a number of times and love the flavor it imparts. I think I read about it somewhere, as an idea a chef had to pick up the taste of the sumac. I wish I could remember his name to give him credit. I saw your recipe for hummas and intend to give it a try – today in fact. Thanks for the comments and feeback.

  14. I love sumak! I top it off on everything I can, I love it with especially with fish dishes. It is great a garnishment or side salad. Slice an onion into thin long strips, add in a few teaspoons of sumak, jemon juice and salt and mix with your hand crushing the onions as it absorbs the sumak flavor. Serve & Enjoy!

    Thank you for the mention! I am all out of sumak at home, I have to visit the store soon!

  15. […] Sumac berries, or Somaq represent the color of sunrise, and with the appearance of God, they conquer evil. […]

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