Natural Healing: Snack on Sumac Berries

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One man’s pest is another man’s pearl. Dandelion root and flowers may be considered pesky weeds. Nettles may seem like the most unlikely side dish. The sumac bush may look like just another roadside shrub. To the resourceful, all of these plants are both food and medicine.

Cooks from many countries, including Turkey, Italy, and Israel, have revered sumac berries (Rhus spp.) for more than a thousand years. And yet, the fruits are hardly something to make a meal or snack of; they are smaller than gooseberries, contain almost as much pit as fruit, and have very little fragrance. They aren’t even sweet! What sumac berries do have going for them is a brilliant brick-to purple-burgundy color, a tart and tangy taste, and a bushel full of therapeutic applications.

Soothing medicine

Sumac leaves and berries are classified as astringent and cooling. Certain Native American and Canadian Indian tribes used sumac to treat bladder, digestive, reproductive, and respiratory ailments; infections; injuries; stomachaches; arrow wounds; and more. The Chippewa Indians of North America made a decoction of sumac flowers to treat gas, indigestion, and other digestive upsets. The Iroquois used sumac as a laxative, diuretic, expectorant, liver aid, and in countless other applications. The powdered bark and dried berries were allegedly combined with tobacco and smoked during peace pipe ceremonies. The inner bark was also used to treat hemorrhoids.

Early pioneers used the berries to reduce fevers, and they steeped and strained the berries and thickened the mixture with honey to yield a soothing cough syrup. Some transformed the berries into wine. Others used the root to produce an emetic tea (to induce vomiting), the bark to make dye, and the leaves to relieve symptoms of asthma.

Sumac berries contain malic acid, which possess antifungal properties and putative anti-fibromyalgic activity; tannic acid, which is present in tea and wine and is known for its astringent activity; and gallic acid, a white crystalline compound used in dyes, in photography, and in ink and paper manufacture.

The vinegar tree

Prior to the importation of lemons in Europe, the ancient Romans allegedly relied on sumac berries for a sour taste. Throughout the Middle East, even today, many people use sumac as a seasoning and the primary souring agent in cooking or as a decorative garnish at the table. The berries are dried, lightly dry-roasted, ground to a powder, and sifted to remove the hard, inedible seeds and soft, downy fuzz. Fresh berries are soaked in water for fifteen to twenty minutes, or entire seed/berry heads (with attached fuzz) are pounded in water, then drained and squeezed through cheesecloth to extract their ruby juices and antioxidants. The powder keeps—far longer than lemons—-at room temperature; the juice may be refrigerated or frozen. A squeeze of sumac juice can replace lemon in your favorite recipes, particularly if you suffer from citrus allergies.

Ground sumac may be rubbed onto meat kabobs prior to grilling or sprinkled over raw onions, casseroles, or cooked vegetables. Stirred into yogurt, sumac makes a piquant sauce for lamb kabobs. Sumac juice adds zest to citrus-free salad dressings or rice pilafs.

Zatar or Zahtar, a blend of ground sumac, thyme, and sesame seeds, is used to flavor labni—a cream cheese– like spread made from drained yogurt—or sprinkled over meat and vegetables, or blended with oil and smeared on bread in Turkey and North Africa. Look for Zatar in Middle Eastern markets or online.

For a cooling drink on a scorching summer day, try this recipe for Sumac Berry Lemonade.

Hunting for wild sumac

Sumac is a deciduous or evergreen shrub or a shrublike tree that grows wild throughout the Mediterranean, South Africa, Asia, northeastern Australia, and in northern temperate regions around the world. Small bushes and shrubs may range from six to twelve feet in height; taller sumac trees may reach twenty-three to thirty-three feet. There are many varieties of sumac. Mention sumac and at least one person is sure to ask about poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix). Like its cousins, poison ivy (Toxicodendron rydbergii) and poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum), poison sumac contains an oil resin, urushiol, which creates contact dermatitis that causes lesions and an intense itch. Should you decide to go foraging, you will need to know how to discern the edible from the poisonous. Poison sumac bears white berries in clusters. Avoid ingesting any white-fruited sumac. You can learn more about identifying poison sumac by visiting the websites listed on page 12.

Edible sumac varieties include smooth sumac (Rhus glabra), staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), sweet sumac (Rhus aromatica), dwarf or winged sumac (Rhus copallina), lemonade berry (Rhus integrifolia), southwestern sumac (Rhus microphylla), sugar bush (Rhus ovata), and squaw berry (Rhus trilobata). All nonpoisonous species contain red berries when ripe and are sometimes inaccurately and collectively called red sumac.

Sumac leaves contain featherlike lance-shaped leaves with sharp-toothed margins, grouped in pinnated compounds with eleven and up to thirty-one leaflets attached to stout but soft wood branches. The hard, berrylike fruits are found in upright cone-shaped clusters and some varieties are covered with a velvety fuzz, which is rich in vitamin C and ascorbic acid.

Sumac should be gathered in the fall as soon as the berries turn red. If left on the tree for too long, much of the flavor will be lost.

Shopping for sumac

You can buy whole, dried sumac berries from herb or specialty stores, or from the sources listed at left. For the best flavor and fragrance, briefly roast the berries in a hot, dry skillet, stirring all the while, until the spices start to crackle and smoke briefly. Roast until darkened, about two or three minutes once the berries start crackling. Exact time will depend upon the type and size. Allow to cool, then grind in a mortar with a pestle (the hard way) or in a small electric spice-dedicated coffee grinder (the easy way). Sift the berries through a fine mesh strainer to remove the hard, inedible pits that could otherwise crack a tooth. Or, for convenience, purchase ground sumac. Some companies add salt to facilitate grinding, although I have not found this necessary. Ask before you buy, particularly if you follow a low- or no-salt diet. Store dried sumac berries and the ground spice in an airtight jar at room temperature.

Websites to help identify (and avoid) poison sumac 

Sumac sources

The Great American Spice Company
PO Box 80068
Fort Wayne, IN 46898
Phone: (888) 502-8058
Fax: (260) 420-8117
Notes: Also provides Zatar

Penzeys Spices
Phone: (800) 741-7787
Fax: (262) 785-7678

Seasoned Pioneers, Ltd.
No. 12A Beswicks Rd.
Northwich, Cheshire, CW8 1AP United Kingdom
Phone: (0800) 0682348
Fax: (0151) 7099330
Note: Also provides Zatar

The Spice House
1941 Central St.
Evanston, IL 60201
Phone: (847) 328-3711

Rachel Albert-Matesz has been a freelance food and health writer, cooking coach, and natural foods cooking instructor for sixteen years. Look for her book, The Produce Dominated Diet & Cookbook: Practically Paleo Principles for Modern Nutrition.