I first noticed sumac on that trail in the hydro corridor near my house. It spread down each side of the path, arcing over the top in a canopy that reminded me of pathways from picture books or from the movies, where only dappled sunlight pierces the dense, umbrella-like foliage. With its long, glossy dark leaves and bright clusters of scarlet drupes, paired with the abiding humidity of Toronto’s summers, when you were walking the path you could almost pretend you were somewhere tropical. It felt lush. The sounds of the city disappeared and the sumac transported me somewhere magical. It was a special pathway for me, and I walked it frequently.
Later, as I began to extensively cook Middle Eastern food, sumac entered my life in a new way. It was the purplish hued spice that brought a pleasant tanginess to dishes like mussakhan and fattoush, as well as bringing its tart drumline to that Middle Eastern big band spice blend, za’atar. It is almost lemony in its tartness, but with a pleasant earthiness that hummed in the background. I began to use it in almost everything.
And it wasn’t until months later that I made the connection: the sumac I was using in my cooking was the same sumac as what studded the trees in my tropical pathway.
Well, almost the same.
The sumac that is used in the spice blend is one member of the sumac family (genus, rhus), rhus coriraria or more commonly called European Sumac. What most commonly grows across North America is a close cousin in the sumac family, rhus typhina or more commonly called Staghorn Sumac.
Both grow similar stacks of closely clustered, fuzzy red drupes and, as I began to learn about the Staghorn Sumac that grew around me, I began to learn that it also has a long culinary usage. It grows across most of eastern North America (map below) and Indigenous peoples across those territories have used it in various ways. The fuzzy red drupes and their tangy tartness have been used to make a drink not dissimilar to lemonade and drank for medicinal purposes, as sumac is high in Vitamin C and antioxidants, as well as having antifungal, anti inflammatory, and antiviral properties. The leaves are used as part of a blend of botanicals that included tobacco and were often smoked for ceremonial uses, and the roots and bark have been used as a dye.
August and September are the prime harvesting months for Staghorn Sumac (though you can continue to harvest as long as the drupes are looking fresh and red), as they are across the ocean around the Mediterranean where European Sumac flourishes. Then, according the book Mouneh: Preserving Foods for the Lebanese Pantry, the drupes are harvested and dried in the sun, once dried they’re put into a large burlap bag or a large mortar called a jurn and beaten with a wooden pestle to beat the ‘fuzz’ from the seeds, and then – using a sieve – the seeds are removed, leaving the ‘fuzz’ which is the part of the sumac that is used as a spice. This is done each year, making enough to last until the next harvest.
It’s best to harvest during a dry spell as the rain washes some of the flavor away, but we’ve had a wet summer and I chose a period of a few dry days strung together to harvest my sumac. I walked along my path, selecting the brightest, fullest looking clusters, clipping them just below the drupe clusters. Back at home, I put them into the dehydrator on a medium heat (135F) for 12 hours or until the drupes could be easily broken off from the main stems. A couple of the clusters looked like they had ‘worm poop’ in the inside, something I learned might be a possibility if the sumac is past its prime, so I only used the clusters without those to avoid that nastiness in my spices.
Once I had removed the individual drupes, I put them in my blender and gave them a gentle blend until the red ‘fuzz’ was removed from the seeds. The seeds are hard enough that they will stay whole even in a high-powered blender like a Vitamix. Then, I used a sieve to separate the ‘fuzz’ from the seeds and little bits of twigs, leaving the ‘fuzz’.
What’s left is a tangy, slightly sticky spice that is a local version of what I have only ever bought in the supermarket. It’s an ingredient that’s indigenous to this place, but also one that’s essential to Middle Eastern cuisine and peoples who now live here. It’s also a memory, for me, of that magical pathway that introduced me to sumac, a particular memory of place and of my time in Toronto.
Harvesting and drying my own sumac is part of embracing the processes and cultures behind the foods I eat and, through this process, I gained a newfound appreciation for the amount of time and work that goes into making a small amount of spice. I also gained an appreciation for both the Indigenous and Middle Eastern elders who passed down their knowledge of the plants around them, their techniques, and the uses they have, because I’m not that kind of person to randomly stick my tongue onto some fuzzy red plants to see if it tastes any good or if it makes me sick or not!
Through this passed down knowledge, and from learning from those willing to share their knowledge with me, I now have a jar of sumac, grown from a magical pathway a few hundred meters from my house, with which to cook delicious food with throughout the year. From a time perspective, it’s much easier and efficient to just buy sumac from the grocery store, but what harvesting your own sumac does is force you to pay attention to the places you’re in, to pay attention to the rhythm of the seasons, and to appreciate the processes and labor behind our food. It’s a small taste of a different economy of food that doesn’t rely on quickness, ease, and cost.