Sumac is a dried spice powder with origins in Middle Eastern cooking. It is a rich, dark red colour and has a lemony tang. You might also encounter it as sumach or sumaki, just don’t confuse it with the — helpfully named — poison sumac.

Because of its lemon-like flavour, sumac is an ideal substitution anywhere you might use lemon zest in savoury cooking. This means sumac and thyme are natural bedfellows. Next time you want to prepare a quick and easy brunch, try sautéing sliced mushrooms with garlic, thyme, onions and a dash of sumac.

The easiest way to introduce this pungent spice into your regular cooking, if you aren’t already an avid user, is to treat it like a condiment. Keep a small ramekin of it at the table alongside your salt and pepper. Sprinkle a dusting of it over a fresh batch of home-made hummus with a drizzle of olive oil, or serve garlicky crostini topped with ricotta cheese, smashed broad beans, fresh mint and sumac (vegans can try it with macadamia nut ricotta).

Because of its origins in Middle Eastern cuisine, a dusting of sumac over freshly prepared falafels, or added to the mixture, is a tasty pairing that will add new flavour complexity to this vegetarian staple. Or you can serve the falafel on a bed of fennel and apple salad spiked with sumac.

It will also jazz up your plate as decoration; block out a few stripes with baking paper and dust over some sumac for an artistic dash of colour. Whichever way you decide to embrace this alluring red spice, definitely find a place for it on your shelf, because you’ll be using it regularly, I promise.

This originally appeared in Vegetarian Living NZ, which is NZ Vegetarian Society’s seasonal magazine.