One of the memorable successes of my Eid menu (and yes I am still talking about Eid ul Fitr, although in the intervening period since…there has already been another Eid, Eid ul Adha) is finally making my own za’atar. Za’atar (zahtar, Arabic ????)* is a Middle Eastern spice mix, that like any other spice “mix” may be a bit dependent on the whims of the mixer! Za’atar is commonly used as an accompanimient to bread – dip bread in oil, dip in za’atar…mmm…enjoy. If you’re in Trinidad, Adam’s Bagels up in Maraval sells its own toasted pita with za’atar (and also a whole lot of other essentials for those of us who have Syrian family demands)… I have also had a dish in Battimamzelle restaurant in Coblentz Inn, Cascade (when it was Chef Khalid Mohammed) made with za’atar, shankleesh and sumac oil (talk about representing the Syrian/Lebanese community in one dish!). If you remember my Middle Eastern post, I mention shankleesh, which is a strong soft white Syrian cheese that Mom craves, which is rolled into a ball and covered with za’atar.
According to Wikipedia, za’atar i’s generally a combination of ground dried herbs such as oregano, thyme and marjoram, with toasted sesame seeds and salt. And then there’s the sumac. Which isn’t necessarily found in all varieties – Wikipedia says it’s a Lebanese addition, perhaps. Sumac is used in the Middle East and in the Mediterranean as spice to add some sourness or tangy taste, hint of citrus, to dishes. It’s found as a ground red (or dark purple) spice and people use it as a seasoning in all kinds of dishes, or just over a salad (see salad at right which we had in Saudi Arabia last year after the Hajj). I wanted my za’atar sour-ish, so I wanted the sumac version.
So to get back to the sumac. We bought some when we went to Hajj last year. We weren’t entirely sure what we were looking for, but in a trip to one of the big stores (a Bin Dawud) we looked all throughout the spice counter just to see what they sold (such big spice counters!). In addition to our trying to figure out what was good saffron (and that is yet another story we haven’t told**), we saw this huge tub behind the counter with a reddish ground spice. Hmm…we asked what it was. The guy looked confused…confused that we were asking I think, he seemed to understand but not speak English but was most likely wondering who on earth doesn’t know what sumac is? After a few tries, with the salesperson becoming increasingly amused we figured it must be sumac and bought up a big bag (might have been a pound…it’s light stuff, but the deciding how much to buy further delighted the man behind the counter I am sure.
So this Eid I had sumac. I had sesame seeds. I even had dried oregano and thyme. Za’atar was my destiny. Za’atar has a complex flavour – nuttiness from the toasted sesame seeds (which is enhanced if you use a little geera/cumin like I did, the tang from the sumac and the thyme and oregano rounding out the overall depth. In addition to dipping some fresh bread (of any kind, doesn’t have to be pita) into this, I’ve used it for chicken, in pasta, baked on a flat bread/pizza dough…possibilities abound.
ZA’ATAR RECIPE (so easy)
- 1/4 cup sesame seeds (toasted)
- 2 tbs dried thyme
- 2 tbs dried oregano
- 1 tbs sumac (or a bit more)
- 1 tbs geera (cumin)
I left out salt, since I figured I could add that to taste depending on need and use of the za’atar, but if you are making a batch for a specific use, go ahead and add the salt – about 1 tsp.
Toasting sesame seeds is great, because I love the smell and the magic of seeing the shiny goldenness appear – but be very careful, since it goes from a hint of gold to black very vast. The seeds are very small after all. I used a small non-stick pan, stirred frequently, and when many started to get shiny and golden (even if still lots of white) I turned off the heat and kept stirring in the pan till they were evenly brown.
You could just mix all ingredients together, or do as I did, and zap them briefly in my coffee grinder. Which doesn’t really grind tiny sesame seeds, but everything gets mixed together very evenly.
Also…those amounts up there – VERY subjective. You might want more sumac, or less thyme. Or no cumin at all. Add marjoram. Play around with the amounts. If you don’t have access to sumac, add some lemon salt or lime/lemon zest for the sourness (see Arabic Bites, a great blog by two sisters, for a recipe for Za’atar and Arabic Pizza (manosha).
For Eid, I did a chicken kebab inspired dish, using lots of za’atar, that was apparently a hit even for fussy pre-teens. And more recently I added it to some whole wheat pasta and that was just lovely. I have no photos of these meals, but will post the chicken recipe soon enough. When I was in Trinidad for Eid ul Adha last month, Lilandra and I made pizza and used one of the pizzas as a za’atar flatbread. Yum.
* A quick word as to pronounciation. Lilandra and I were recently shocked to hear Mario Batali and Alton Brown mangling this word on Iron Chef America (old episode I guess, can’t remember the secret ingredient) with variations given and ALL wrong. It is not pronounced zaTAH or zaTARR… Stress the first syllable, ZAHtar and if you want to get technical, the Arabic has an ‘ayn in the middle, which gives a in-the-back-of-your-throat vowel sound and hence the apostrophe in some spellings to indicate it’s like za-ahtar.
** The saffron story – I started to write it here, and decided that perhaps I should post on our much-neglected Hajj blog!
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