The spices that flavor Lebanese cuisine all line up behind za’atar, the leader of the pack. This blend of dried thyme, sumac, and sesame seeds tastes of bold, citrus notes. Thyme gives za’atar its green color, sesame its toasty nuttiness, the sumac its sourness (but I mean that with affection).
For me, as I suspect for many, za’atar was an acquired taste, but like many acquired tastes—raw oysters, bleu cheese, scotch on the rocks—the acquisition is well worth having and keeping. The taste opens my mind’s eye to the Lebanon I have never met, tying me to a sense of the place, and to myself, in ways that photos, stories, or the news never could.
Za’atar combined with olive oil makes a topping for savory rounds of thick Lebanese bread, typically eaten for breakfast. I have been on a quest to understand, bake, and of course to eat za’atar talami, or menoushe. It is sublime, and we’ll bake this together in the coming months.
You can find za’atar at Middle Eastern grocery stores and many other supermarkets, or online here. Look for bags of 1 pound or larger rather than the small spice jars of green za’atar–they’re much more reasonably priced. It’s also possible to make your own za’atar by carefully roasting fresh thyme (or purchasing dried thyme), toasting sesame seeds, and mixing them with sumac and some coarse salt.
This week we’ll use za’atar very simply and deliciously … for breakfast. Tomorrow: the best fried eggs you’ve ever had.