Sumac Onions (Marinated Red Onion Salad)

Sumac marinated red onions are a deliciously tart and lemony Middle Eastern condiment. Serve it as a side dish for grilled meats, stuff it into pita sandwiches or gyros, add it to mezze platters, or use it to top salads.

Sumac onions are a tangy and slightly sweet condiment made by marinating thinly sliced red onions in a mixture of sumac and lemon juice.

It’s a staple in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine, adding acidity and flavour to rich dishes like grilled meat, seafood and falafel. Or use it to top salads, sandwiches and burgers

It’s a flavourful side dish and condiment all in one.

Does a raw onion salad sound too intense for you? Don’t worry. Soaking the onions in cold water reduces the pungency of the raw onions. And instead, a slightly sweet, somewhat tart onion side dish rewards your patience.

Best of all? This easy sumac onions recipe requires only three ingredients.

Close-up of red sumac onions in a small bowl.

What are sumac onions?

Sumac onions are a Middle Eastern condiment made by marinating thin slices of red onion in a mixture of sumac and lemon juice. Other optional ingredients include olive oil, fresh parsley and red pepper flakes.

The main component of sumac onions is raw red onion. But, it is the sumac marinade that gives the dish its fresh and zesty taste. 

You can call it Turkish onion salad, sumac onion salad, red onion salad, raw onion salad, sumac marinated onions, or sumac salad. But it’s the same deliciously tart marinated onions that pair perfectly with Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food.

What is sumac?

Sumac is a spice derived from the dried and ground berries of the sumac bush. Its tart lemony flavour makes it a versatile ingredient for sweet and savoury dishes. 

It is a staple in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine and adds a distinct tart and slightly sweet taste to dishes.

Use sumac powder in rubs, marinades, and salad dressings. Add sumac at the end of cooking for soups and stews to maintain the bright colour and flavour. Or sprinkle it on top of finished dishes as a seasoning.

Why this recipe works

If you’re unfamiliar with sumac marinated onions, you may do a double take at the thought of a raw onion salad. But this traditional Middle Eastern condiment has a tart and slightly sweet flavour without the pungent raw onion taste.

Why?

  • Soaking thinly sliced red onion in cold water reduces the spicy compounds. It allows the natural sweetness of the onions to shine. And it’s a great trick to sweeten raw onions for green salads while keeping the onions crispy.
  • The acidity of the sumac and lemon juice macerates the onion into a softened tart onion salad, not unlike quick pickled onions.

Sumac onion salad ingredients & substitutions

This easy red onion salad requires only three ingredients and a pinch of salt: 

  • Red onion: I use red onions for the colour and sweet flavour, but it’s delicious with banana shallots (as Yotam Ottolenghi uses in his sumac marinated onions from Simple). You can also use white onions or yellow onions if that is what you have – add a few drops of pomegranate molasses to sweeten the salad if needed.
  • Sumac: The deliciously tart sumac spice gives this condiment its flavour and distinctive speckled look. The best substitute for sumac powder is ground black limes.
  • Lemon juice: Freshly squeezed lemon juice turns the sumac spice into a marinade. You can also use apple cider vinegar or red wine vinegar if you don’t have any lemons around.
The ingredients for sumac onions including a red onions, lemon juice, sumac powder and salt.

Optional sumac onion add-ins

You won’t stray far from traditional Turkish onions by including a few optional extra ingredients:

  • Red pepper flakes: Add a spicy kick to your marinated onions. I love to add half a teaspoon of Aleppo pepper (Turkish pul biber), but any chilli flakes will do.
  • Parsley: Finely chopped parsley pushes this condiment closer to the salad category. It adds fresh flavours and a vibrant green contrast. Use flat-leaf parsley or the curly variety.
  • Pomegranate molasses: This thick, syrupy reduction made from pomegranate juice, sugar, and lemon juice is another beautifully tart addition to the raw onion salad. 
  • Olive oil: A tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil will give the sumac onion salad a luscious texture.

With only these simple ingredients, sumac onions are gluten-free, plant-based, and super delicious. Perfect for easy entertaining.

How to make sumac onions

This onion salad is the perfect Middle Eastern condiment to serve with any feast. And, bonus, they’re also super easy to make.

Thinly sliced red onions in a bowl with cold water with small bowls of sumac, lemon juice and salt.

There are two steps to make sumac onions sweet and tart without that pungent onion flavour.

  1. Finely slice the onions using a sharp knife or a Microplane. Then, leave them to soak in cold water for at least 10 minutes (up to 30 minutes). 
  2. Thoroughly drain the onions, then mix them with sumac, salt and a bit of fresh lemon juice
Thinly sliced red onions with sumac and lemon juice in a large mixing bowl.

Both steps will reduce the pungency of the onions and reward you with a slightly sweet and tangy onion salad. Find the instructions in the recipe card.

Storage

Transfer your marinated red onions to an airtight container and refrigerate for up to five days.

It’s best to store them in a non-reactive container, such as a glass jar or plastic container, to prevent the flavours from being affected by metal.

The onions will continue to soften and turn bright pink throughout. If they become too tart, you can rinse them with cold water and add a pinch of sugar for sweetness.

Drain the liquid before serving if the stored onion salad becomes too watery.

Top down view of a raw onion salad with sumac marinade.

Serving suggestions

This marinated red onion salad is a traditional side dish that adds fresh acidity to rich meals like grilled meat. 

But that’s not all. Sumac onions are a versatile condiment that will bring freshness and a touch of colour to any meal.

Use it as a zesty salad topping

Add the marinated onions to tomato salad like Ottolenghi does in his recipe for tomatoes with sumac onions and pine nuts from Simple. Or use it instead of the black lime onions in this tomato pomegranate salad.

You can also add it to Middle Eastern salads like fattoush or bulgur wheat salad.

Serve sumac onion salad as part of a mezze spread

Sumac onions make the perfect accompaniment to a variety of Middle Eastern dishes.

Make a falafel plate with crispy Middle Eastern falafel (or try this simple baked falafel), creamy lemon hummus, lemon tahini sauce, fresh vegetables (like tomato wedges, cucumber slices and red bell pepper) and a bowl of sumac onions. Find more ideas for your falafel plate and what to serve with falafel.

A falafel plate with crispy Israeli falafel, creamy hummus, tahini sauce, pita bread and fresh salad.

Or serve the sumac onions with a mezze spread. Try a Middle Eastern bulgur wheat salad with dips like harissa hummus, muhammara (Lebanese red pepper and walnut dip), marinated feta, or garlic and herb labneh balls

Serve it with lots of warm pita bread, fresh veggies and extra-virgin olive oil.

Add it to sandwiches, wraps and burgers

Sumac onions are the perfect condiment for Middle Eastern sandwiches like chicken shawarma, kebab, gyros or falafel pita sandwiches instead of raw onion. 

Or use it to top your next burger instead of onion relish.

Use it in dips and spreads

Mix sumac onions with yoghurt or sour cream to create a delicious dip for veggies or pita chips. 

Or spread a shallow plate with labneh, spoon over some sumac onions and top with chopped pistachio or toasted pine nuts.

Top a grain bowl with sumac onions

Prepare a bowl of quinoa kale salad or bulgur wheat salad as the base of your grain bowl (or use brown rice, barley or your favourite cooked grain). And top it with avocado, veggies, nuts and a tahini dressing for an easy flavourful meal.

Frequently asked questions

What are sumac onions?

Sumac onions are a Middle Eastern condiment of thinly sliced onions marinated in sumac spice and lemon juice. The result is a tangy and slightly sweet flavour that pairs well with Middle Eastern food. 

What does sumac taste like?

Sumac has a tangy, slightly sour flavour with a hint of sweetness reminiscent of fresh lemon juice and berries. Its mellow lemon taste is not overpowering, making it a versatile ingredient in many dishes. 

How do you make raw onions less spicy?

You can reduce the spicy compounds by soaking sliced onions in cold water. It makes the onions sweeter and keeps them crispy. Allowing the sliced onions to soak in vinegar or lemon juice will remove more of the pungent flavour, but the onions will soften and absorb the sour taste. 

Cooking the onions over low heat will also allow them to soften and become sweeter.

Sumac onions in a small condiment bowl with a gold spoon.

Sumac Onions (Marinated Onion Salad)

5 from 7 votes
Print Pin
This easy recipe for sumac marinated red onion salad is one you will make on repeat. Sumac onions are a slightly sweet, tart and lemony Middle Eastern condiment to serve with any meal.
Recipe byAdri
Yield1 cup
Servings4
Prep Time5 minutes
Resting Time: 30 minutes
Total Time35 minutes

Equipment

Ingredients
 

  • 1 red onion
  • 1 tablespoon sumac
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • teaspoon salt

Instructions

  • Cut the red onion in half. Then slice it into thin half-moons – I like to use a mandolin for even slices, but you can use a sharp knife. Place the red onion slices in a bowl of cold water and leave for at least 10 minutes (up to 30 minutes).
  • Thoroughly drain the sliced onions and mix them with the rest of the ingredients. Use your hands to massage the sumac into the onions.
  • Set the red onion salad aside for the sumac marinade to do its magic. Leave it for at least 20 minutes before serving.
  • Transfer leftover sumac onions to a non-reactive airtight container and refrigerate for up to 5 days.

Notes

The total time of 30 minutes is mostly resting time. These easy sumac onions require almost no effort to get ready!

Nutrition Information

Calories: 12 kcal Carbohydrates: 3 g Protein: 0.3 g Fat: 0.04 g Saturated Fat: 0.02 g Polyunsaturated Fat: 0.01 g Monounsaturated Fat: 0.003 g Sodium: 74 mg Potassium: 44 mg Fiber: 0.5 g Sugar: 1 g Vitamin A: 1 IU Vitamin C: 3 mg Calcium: 7 mg Iron: 0.1 mg

More Middle Eastern-inspired salad recipes

If you loved my sumac onions, why not try another delicious Middle Eastern salad?

8 Comments

  1. 5 stars
    I am obsessed with sumac, and this recipe is so bright and flavorful! It was a hit all the way around the table, I’ll be making it again! Thank you!

  2. 5 stars
    I love Mediterranean cuisine and I am drooling over that mezze spread. Looks like something I’d get in a restaurant! Looking forward to making these onions and some of your other recipes.

    1. Thank you so much, Jill! I just adore a beautiful mezze spread and these onions just adds a lovely extra touch. I hope you enjoy them!

  3. 5 stars
    Such a delicious accompaniment to pair with grilled meats! It looks so good and I love how easily the onions come together.

  4. 5 stars
    Such a fabulous recipe, I adore sumac and this side dish hits the mark! Super flavorful, and a total breeze to whip up. Thank you so much!

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