Nabil al Kudsy, owner of Babylon City Market, can close his eyes and tell he’s eating za’atar.
“In the Middle East, in every house they have this,” says the Iraqi-born al Kudsy of the green seasoning that blends a type of thyme indigenous to that part of the world, toasted sesame seeds, ground sumac and salt.
Depending on country, za’atar might be embellished with pounded cumin and coriander seeds or nuts. These are outliers.
“You put a thin layer of labne (extra-thick kefir cheese with probiotics akin to yogurt) on a plate,” say al Kudsy. “You dip bread in olive oil, then you dip the bread in the za’atar and labne.” This is breakfast.
In the countries that hug the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, it’s not a day without a sprinkling of za’atar to flavor all varieties of flat breads. Even with hundreds of variations, za’atar’s unaggressive nutty-herbal-lemony taste is a touch of the familiar in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Israel, and in particular throughout the cuisine of the Palestinians.
Now za’atar –or zatar, zaatar – is poised to be the next “It” seasoning. American chefs are tossing za’atar by the handfuls over eggplant salads, hummus, arugula, a medley of roasted vegetables. They’re adding it to yogurt or rubbing it over a chicken before roasting. They’re learning that any food complemented by the thyme-oregano-savory-marjoram flavor family would shine with za’atar’s subtle and mysterious flavor and unexpected crunch from the sesame seeds, usually left whole.
The Arden corridor between Fulton and Watt Avenue is the za’atar zone in Sacramento. Quality and mixtures vary by brand and a country’s style. Jordanian Mid-East brand is olive green. Lebanese Adonis brand za’atar, aside from being GMO-free, is tinged slightly red from more of sumac’s red berries ground into the proportion, and with it, a palpable astringency.
At Meditarranean Market, owner Kayed Bouri carries half a dozen types of za’atar. In the Baraka brand, you can see the layers of thyme and brick-red sumac. Bouri favors brands not stretched with something that no home cook would add – roasted wheat. Besides using za’atar in its usual place on bread sometimes baked with sautéed onions, Bouri’s favorite snack is a chopped hard-boiled egg mixed with olive oil and sprinkled with za’atar.
If you’re looking for za’atar made fresh, head to the small store in the waiting area of Pita Kitchen restaurant. “I remember in my grandmother’s house she would bring in the za’atar leaves to dry out,” says Aya Khalifeh, 19, who helps run her Palestinian family’s restaurant. “She would take the stems off the za’atar and crush the leaves to make them super soft.”
This is the confusing part. The thyme plant is also called za’atar. Aya’s father grows the za’atar thyme in Sacramento. “It’s a big bush,” Aya says. The leaves are floppier than the tiny leaves on English or French thymes.
Aya, a student at Sacramento State studying government and journalism, is aware of za’atar’s possible status as the Next Big Thing. She was out with friends when she encountered za’atar in an unlikely place.
“I was surprised to see za’atar at Olive Garden,” she says, grinning at the non-traditional use. “It was sprinkled on roasted vegetables. That’s why I ordered it.” Aya also sprinkles za’atar on rice.
Pita Kitchen’s za’ater is made on the premises. It’s a basic blend of dried za’atar thyme, toasted sesame seeds, sumac and salt. It comes in a 16-ounce tub for $4.95.
Aya cautions that even though za’atar is made of dried ingredients, if not properly stored or left unused for a long time, it can become stale. “For those of us who eat it every day, we can tell when it’s not top-notch. It has a less vivid taste.”
For Aya and her family, za’atar is part of a Palestinian breakfast – `pita pieces dipped in olive oil so the za’atar adheres, then a drag through the za’atar. “We have it every day with sage tea.”
Elaine Corn is an award-winning cookbook author and former newspaper food editor.