The Spice of Life

The Mideast's favorite herb comes from the large mint family

Ronit Penso
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Ronit Penso

Za'atar - an ancient plant that apparently originated in Asia Minor - is one of the best known and best loved herbs in the Middle East. It is mentioned numerous times in the Bible and in the New Testament, mainly as a key herb in purification rites, but also as an allegory for survival and making do with very little, as the herb can grow in rocky ground and survive in difficult conditions.

In the past, za'atar was very common in the Mediterranean basin, but it was hurt by its popularity and has disappeared from wide areas. In Israel, it has been declared a protected plant and picking it is prohibited, but it is cultivated in a controlled setting.

Za'atar is an evergreen herb, whose soft greenish-grayish leaves are usually picked in the winter, when they are relatively large. In the spring, small white flowers sprout atop every stalk.

It was also an important part of ancient folk medicine - compresses of za'atar leaves were used to soothe rheumatic pains and the leaves were eaten as a cure for digestive problems. Infusions of za'atar leaves and flowers were used to ease breathing problems, treat headaches and flu, and as a general vaccine for the body. Today too za'atar leaves have popular medicinal uses. Za'atar leaves for making tea can be found in health food stores (50-gram packages produced by Herb Center sell for NIS 5).

Za'atar leaves are very aromatic, with a scent reminiscent of a combination of oregano and mint. There's a reason for that - za'atar comes from the large mint family, which also includes oregano, marjoram and thyme. Another related plant is hyssop, which grows in southern Europe. Its leaves are narrower and pointier, but the taste and aroma are very similar to that of za'atar. Hyssop was an important ingredient in liqueurs based on medicinal herbs, such as Chartreuse and Benedictine, which were made in monasteries and originally used as cures for digestive problems.

Like many herbs from the mint family, a small amount of za'atar is enough to obtain its unique flavor and aroma. Za'atar leaves can be used when fresh or dried. The attar oils they contain disappear quickly in the heat and therefore they should not be cooked for long and they should be added to cooked dishes only after the cooking has been completed. Za'atar is recommended for use in cooked dishes and sauces containing tomatoes and olive oil, as a topping for soft cheeses, especially goat cheeses and in fish and grilled chicken dishes. Fresh za'atar leaves make a very good topping to fresh salads and are also used in Arab cuisine in a salad of chopped za'atar leaves, flavored with lemon, salt and pepper.

Za'atar leaves also have a slight bitterness, which is felt when large quantities are used. Apparently, that is why it is often sold in a herbal spice mix referred to by its name. Za'atar mixes, of which there are many variations, contain za'atar leaves, salt and sumac (which adds some acidity) in order to balance its slightly bitter taste.

Roasted sesame is often also added, as are herbs such as thyme or oregano. There are widely differing za'atar mixes available at local supermarkets and food outlets. Moshav Alon Hagalil's za'atar mix (NIS 10 for 100 grams) contains, in addition to sumac, roasted chickpeas and wheat, olive oil and lemon salt, which balance za'atar's bitterness very well.

Blue Square's Aroma za'atar mix (NIS 9 for 130 grams) does not list the ingredients. One can see that it contains roasted sesame and sumac, but this mix is too bitter. Drora Havkin Spice Farm's sesame and za'atar spice mix (NIS 14 for 60 grams) consists mainly of roasted sesame, za'atar leaves, thyme and sumac. This mix is recommended for those who prefer the dominant flavor of roasted sesame.

Za'atar should not be kept for too long, especially when it comes in mixes that contain olive oil and sesame. Because the flavor can decay rapidly, it is best to refrigerate za'atar.

Za'atar mixes can be eaten as is with bread, olive oil and soft cheeses, but they can also be used in baked dishes as in the recipe below.

Quick za'atar bread

1 1/2 cups regular white flour

1 cup whole-wheat flour

1 tbs. baking powder

1 tbs. sugar

2 tbs. za'atar mix, plus a little more for garnish

Around 1/2 tsp. of salt (or less if the za'atar mix is particularly salty)

1 beaten egg

1 cup Rivayon (buttermilk)

1/4 cup olive oil

1/2 cup finely chopped green olives

Heat the oven to 200 degrees. In a bowl, mix the two types of flour, baking powder, sugar, za'atar and salt. In another bowl, mix the egg with the Rivayon and the oil. Add to the flour mixture and mix. Add the olives to the flour mixture and knead the mixture into a soft dough (if the dough is too soft, add a little flour). Shape the dough into an oblong loaf.

Grease and flour a loaf pan and place the dough in it. Bake for 50-60 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the bread comes out dry. Spread a little olive oil on top of the warm loaf and sprinkle some za'atar mix on it. Cool slightly before serving.

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