The spices that flavor Lebanese cuisine all line up behind za’atar, the leader of the pack. This blend of dried thyme (za’atar means thyme in Arabic), 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 as of yet, 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 man’oushe. It is sublime.
You can find za’atar at Middle Eastern grocery stores or at MaureenAboodMarket.com here. Homemade za’atar is not going to impart true za’atar flavor unless you can find dried wild thyme, which is not typically available retail. Standard dried thyme is a different flavor than is used for za’atar.