My love affair with za’atar began in the 1970s in my Lebanese friend Janet’s grandmother’s kitchen. Sitoo’s (the Lebanese word for grandmother) home was in Waterville, Maine, where there is still a Lebanese community today. Her kitchen was a stronghold of tradition.
I watched her large, extended family in the kitchen making a yummy type of flatbread loaded with olive oil, sesame seeds, herbs like savory, thyme, and oregano and something else…a flavor…I absolutely loved but could not pin. That flavor turned out to be sumac, the zingy acid component.
Decades later and feeling in the know, I tried to find “za’atar” in the spice markets of Cairo. Shopkeepers kept giving me a wild herb that grows in the desert, which although interesting, was not the za’atar of my friend’s kitchen. Upon further research, I’ve learned that za’atar blends are regional, even tribal, and such closely held secrets that a mother-in-law might choose not to hand the recipe over to a new bride. Za’atar is, I’ve read, “a symbol of national identity and a personal watermark.” Now that’s personal.
There are red blends and green blends, Jordanian za’atar, often considered superior, is red. The red blend features that special tang of sumac that I learned to crave early on. Lebanese blends sometimes include a bit of orange zest and wild hyssop or mint. The wild hyssop was so over harvested in the Arabian desserts that it had to be protected lest it became extinct.
Herbal, floral, supremely savory and versatile, nutty and woodsy, I recommend getting to know this wonderful spice mixture. Za’atar can often be found in specialty markets, natural foods stores, and big city Arabian markets. Most all of its components do grow in Maine and you could, conceivably, blend your own!
Bring it to your next barbeque with this simple recipe.
Za’atar Crusted Chicken Kebabs
Laura Cabot, Laura Cabot Catering, Waldoboro
Marinate your chicken and vegetables as you normally would, overnight, in a ziploc baggie.
Skewer them on a water soaked kebab stick (or try using rosemary wood; it’s great!)
Roll them in za’atar and let sit, covered in the fridge, for a couple of hours before grilling as usual.
You will be delighted by this savory spin on chicken!