Arabs are fiercely dedicated to the particular blended za’atar of their motherlands, claiming their national version to be the best, unequivocally.
In British English, “pudding” refers not only to a specific dish, but also to a class of recipes within which the specific dish happens to lie. In Arabic, za’atar is a similarly confusing term. It’s a fresh herb, but it is also a spice blend that can include a host of herbs from the families of savory, oregano, marjoram and thyme. As a general rule, Arabs are fiercely dedicated to the particular blended za’atar of their motherlands, claiming their national version to be the best, unequivocally.
What za’atar truly is remains a matter of debate, although the explanation I’m most inclined to believe is one I found on the excellent food blog Desert Candy (desertcandy.blogspot.com), in a post titled What is Za’atar?
It reads: “Za’atar is a specific herb, thymbra spicata, with long green leaves and thyme-like flavour. It is sometimes called wild thyme in English, and it grows along the slopes of the Syrian-Lebanese mountains and cannot be cultivated.”
The fresh leaves of the za’atar plant can be pickled, or made into a fragrant golden tea, or served in a salad with slivers of sweet onion, heady garlic and a sharp dressing of lemon, olive oil and salt.
The only definitive ingredients in za’atar are dried herbs, sesame seeds and salt. Opinions differ regarding the ideal ratio: some believe the sesame seeds are used as a filler; just as poor quality za’atar might be bulked up with flour. Others disagree, claiming that a blend heavy on the sesame is a sign of a more luxurious product.
Believe what you will about its natural habitat, what isn’t debatable about za’atar is that it’s wonderful. We didn’t make our own za’atar at home, but we did get a masterful proprietary blend from the mother of a friend of a friend of a friend, which is not a bad way to obtain za’atar if you’re not making it yourself. We ate it on labneh, and in croissants, and on eggs, and mashed into soft cheese with Aleppo pepper, but mostly we just ate it on its own, scooped up with bread.
As a teenager, I mocked my mother’s ritual of packing Tupperware with za’atar and olive oil and bringing it along to the bakery, requesting that it be used to make our flatbreads, so that we could enjoy a breakfast untarnished by commercial rubble. I stopped teasing her after I visited Lebanon for the first time and saw that this was actually common practice.
Our za’atar was Lebanese, because our genetic loyalties demanded it. Kalustyan’s, a huge ethnic grocer in New York, sells Jordanian, Syrian, Lebanese and Israeli za’atar. Each looks totally distinct because the herbs used in them differ to a large degree, as do the seasonings. Israelis tend to use hyssop, Palestinians sometimes add caraway seed, Syrians might add cumin, Persians like pistachios and the Lebanese are crazy about tart scarlet sumac. But it’s impossible to generalise because, remarkably, there are as many versions of za’atar out there as there are people making it.
Nouf Al-Qasimi is an Emirati food analyst who cooks and writes in New Mexico