What Makes Sumac an Important Element in Lebanese Food?

Middle Eastern flavours that are sure to delight

Lebanese food is delicious, comforting but vibrant and an absolute joy to eat. While the cuisine itself is diverse, a few flavours are used in many dishes. It’s no secret that lemons, garlic, mint and oregano are heavily present in many dishes. Many dishes often feature lamb, chickpeas, yogurt and rice, however, there is also another frequently used ingredient that many people don’t think about – sumac. 

At Zahli, we regularly use sumac and it is present in a few of our Lebanese dishes. Here are a few:

  • Fattoush
    • This is a dish originating from Northern Lebanon. It is essentially a bread salad. At Zahli, it contains tomato, cucumber, capsicum, parsley, shallots, baby cos lettuce, fresh mint leaves, cabbage, sumac, crispy bread, pomegranate molasses and lemon oil dressing.
  • The Zahli salad
    • This is our special house salad. It brilliantly represents the flavours of Lebanon and includes rocket leaves, beetroot, Spanish onion, sumac, and walnuts with fresh lemon juice and olive oil.
  • Spinach pastry
    • This traditional Lebanese pastry is filled with spinach, onion and sumac.

What is sumac? What does it taste and look like?

Sumac berries grow on the Rhus Coriaria shrub. It is made by harvesting red berries from this plant (not the white as it is poisonous) and then dried and ground coarsely. In dishes, sumac is easy to spot. It’s a deep red with purple tones and is either sprinkled over food or used during the cooking process.

Sumac’s flavour profile is similar to that of a lemon, however, it is much milder and fruitier, allowing for a more balanced flavour profile. When you taste sumac its flavour goes from sweet to sour, and then your palate is hit with an acidic punch. 

Availability in Lebanon

As mentioned earlier in this article, the sumac plant is a wild bush that grows throughout the Mediterranean, from Italy to Lebanon. Its exact origin is unknown, however, it was used by the Romans as a form of acidity prior to the arrival of lemons in the region.

The sumac shrub is found in almost every part of Lebanon as it can grow at almost any altitude. It can also grow in poor, rocky soils with little access to water and is tolerant to drought and salt. The tree itself is composed of single or multiple  trunks and can grow to be as tall as 3 metres. 

In Lebanon, you can find a number of varieties of sumac at Lebanese street markets throughout the country. It is integral to a number of dishes and is a staple in any Lebanese household, so it will not be difficult to find. In Australia, you can find sumac in many mainstream supermarkets as Lebanese and Middle Eastern food has become quite popular in the country. If you cannot find it, then we highly recommend that you visit a Lebanese or Middle Eastern store. There, you’ll be able to find sumac along with a number of different Lebanese spices commonly used in beloved dishes.

Sumac’s importance in Lebanese cuisine

Complements staples in Lebanese dishes

Because of the brightness of sumac, it is used as an acidulant throughout Lebanese dishes and is perfect in salads (as seen in our menu), creamy dishes because it can cut through the heaviness of a dish (as seen with our spinach pastry), meat dishes because the acidity cuts through the fatness of the meat and even in desserts! Anywhere that you would use lemon is usually appropriate for sumac as well.

Key ingredient in za’atar

Importantly, in Lebanese cuisine, sumac is a major ingredient in za’atar, the treasured spice blend of Lebanon. Za’atar is a tangy and flavourful spice blend that Lebanese people use as a dip (when mixed with olive oil), marinade or as a flavourful element to sprinkle on Lebanese bread. Za’atar is earthy, woodsy, slightly floral and of course, tangy (from the sumac), making it versatile.

Sumac’s flavour profile is unique but versatile and is key to a number of Lebanese dishes. At Zahli, we proudly use this spice as it is traditional in the dishes identified earlier in this article and evokes the  flavour of Lebanon. Sumac’s history in Lebanon,  its suitability for growing in the  country and its importance in our dishes, has made it one of  the most important spices in Lebanese cuisine.

If you are interested in indulging in authentic Lebanese food then Zahli, Modern Middle Eastern restaurant can gladly provide a memorable meal. Zahli is here to provide you with a culinary experience like no other. Call us on (02) 9318 2228 to reserve a table or for pick-up orders.