On the Food Channel, an American chef dabs a cube of raw tuna in a “middle eastern spice” before searing it lightly in a pan. He tells the audience that he had come across this spice recently and that he is finding many uses for it. I recognize this “spice,” as it is my everyday breakfast, zaatar. I eat it every morning with olive oil and lebne (yogurt strained through cheesecloth). It is part of the daily diet of he Lebanese, they get it, in man’ouche form, from the corner bakery and eat it as they walk to work or school or just stand there in a group chatting and munching on the street corner. The man’ouche is basically a zaatar pizza and it was a food that we devoured in great quantities during exams because we were told that it stimulates the memory.
When I think of zaatar, I always picture Dad preparing batches of it on the kitchen table in our home in the southern Lebanese village of Deir Keifa. There would be mounds of ground wild thyme that he had picked from the land around the house and dried in the Mediterranean sun. There was the burgundy colored sumac powder that gives zaatar its tang. There were the sesame seeds that dad would heat until it starts emitting its nutty aroma. He would blend these ingredients and then add the salt. This mix of hearty sesame, lemony sumac, and aromatic thyme was put in bags, one for each son, and labeled. If you were lucky he would set you up with some Lebanese olive oil from our grove. The olive oil is what sets off this potent combination. Dab the mix with fresh pita bread and you are done for, you are addicted. Some American friends refer to zaatar as Lebanese crack, not the most holistic description of such a natural healthy food but I understand where they are coming from. I would describe it more as a wedding in your mouth.
There is no exact science to making zaatar but the basic formula is 7 parts zaatar, 1 part sesame seed, 3 parts ground sumac and ½ part salt. There is a cookbook that was inspired by zaatar, and by the man’oushe in particular. It is titled Man’oushe: Inside the Street Corner Lebanese Bakery by Barbara Abdeni Massaad. It is a gorgeous book that that uses man’oushe as a premise to a journey of discovery of the foods of the Lebanese corner bakery. That book has allowed me to make man’oushe using a conventional oven.
If you ever stop by DC, stop by my place on Sunday afternoons where I serve Turkish tea and zaatar and you will understand what all the fuss is about.