We were taking a stroll last summer near Deir El-Kamar, our beautiful hometown in the Shouf mountains. We were at the top of a hill, surrounded by empty fields and we saw an elderly man hunched over bushes carrying huge plastic bags. He turned around to greet us and with a wide grin said ” I am digging up zaatar” (‘am hawwesh zaatar)
That is one of the traditions in Lebanon: digging the wild thyme or zaatar for the family’s consumption throughout the year, or, as this man was doing, for the purpose of packaging it and selling it at the local village markets. Digging up zaatar was the first step. Then the leaves had to be dried, cleaned up and ground to a powder and finally mixed with some salt, sumac and roasted sesame seeds. Zaatar is now ready.
Zaatar is both the name of the wild thyme (Origanum syriacum) that grows all over the mountains and hills of Lebanon and the name of the mix. Its fragrance will be noticeable as you are walking nearby and it is wonderful. Lebanese folks who are experts at using the bounty of nature to its fullest extent use it on a daily basis sprinkled with olive oil on flatbread. The street corner bakeries produces these flatbreads, called man’ooshe, by the thousands every morning. It is also eaten on ka’ak, a type of bread shaped like a small purse, and sold by street vendors.
Now, as a result of intense harvesting by nomadic people, wild zaatar is no longer as widespread as it once was. It is now cultivated in the village of Zawtar in south Lebanon. It can also be cultivated at home from seeds and is a perennial plant.
The zaatar was always part of our breakfast table, where we would mix it with yoghurt cheese or labneh, some olive oil and some pita bread, roll it up and devour in the morning. I loved its pungent, earthy flavor, reminiscent of marjoram and mint.
To say that zaatar is important to the Lebanese is an understatement. Every traditional Lebanese home makes their own zaatar mix. When we would run to the street corner bakery to order our flatbread or man’ooshe for breakfast, my mom and my aunts would adamantly insist on taking our own zaatar to use on the bread. They would not be caught dead eating someone else’s zaatar! Today, I understand why. When zaatar is harvested, the best part is made up of the small leaves, which are ground into a fine powder. The twigs and larger leaves are used commercially ( mixed with bran and citric acid) and therefore not as good.
Zaatar is so important to the Lebanese that a chain of coffee shop aptly called Zaatar w zeit (zeit means oil) opened in Beirut 10 years ago to serve zaatar flatbread 24 hours a day! They are now operating in several countries in the arab world.www.zaatarwzeit.net
The dosage for zaatar is a matter of personal taste. In middle-eastern stores, different types of zaatar mix are sold. Jordanian or Syrian zaatar will not taste the same as Lebanese zaatar, for instance. Some varieties are called green. When you buy it in a bag, it is supposed to be ready. However, it is a good idea to taste a bit first and see if you like it. You may like to add more sesame seeds or more sumac.
INGREDIENTS: This quantity will yield enough zaatar for 2 large flatbreads. It can also last for 2 weeks to be used on yoghurt cheese or on toast. This is the proportion according to Anissa Helou from her book Lebanese Cuisine.
- 2/3 thyme to 1/3 sumac
- 1/4 of the above quantity of thyme and sumac in sesame seeds, toasted or raw
- Salt to taste
If using a zaatar mix:
Use 1/3 cup of zaatar to 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- Place the zaatar in a shallow bowl.
- Swirl the oil on top mixing the zaatar and oil to the consistency of a wet paste.
If using your own mix:
- Place the thyme, sumac and sesame seeds in a skillet.
- Add some salt, to taste.
- Heat the skillet gently while stirring to mix all the spices.
- Place in a jar, cover and set aside or refrigerate for one year.
- When ready to use, mix a few tablespoons at a time with 1/4 cup olive oil, adding more as needed.
Shown above is sumac, the other spice that is used in the zaatar mix. It taste a bit sour and is often used in Lebanese cooking to replace lemons. It can be found in middle-eastern stores or can be ordered online.