Making your own spice blends
Whole spices warmed and then ground with a mortar and pestle or using a spice grinder adds the freshest flavor. It takes a few extra steps, but your family will thank you for it. Larger groceries are starting to carry more exotic spice blends, but most come in a tiny container at a much higher price than if you were to purchase the whole ingredients separately to grind and the mix yourself.
Za’atar—the herb, and the spice blend
The za’atar herb is a plant that is grown in the Middle East. It’s eaten fresh in salads, or served alongside grilled meats. A pinch of leaves are grabbed and added to a scoop of grilled meat nestled in piece of bread and eaten in one bite. The flavor is similar to thyme, but stronger.
Za’atar spice blend is basically a combination of dried thyme (dried za’atar if you can find it), sumac, salt, and toasted sesame seeds. You’ll also find recipes with different proportions and other dried herbs added, like marjoram or oregano. Some recipes will grind the dried herbs to a fine powder and pass it through a fine sieve. While other prefer not grinding them or use some grinding. Some variations toast the sesame seeds and some specify uncooked. So as you can see, it’s a matter of preference and most families that enjoy za’atar have an opinion in the matter. It’s nice to make it at home and adjust the flavor and texture to the dish you’re making or to your family’s taste.
Za’atar is an acquired taste
The first time I encountered a jar of za’atar was with my huband’s brothers. They had just received a large bag of this dark dirt-like mixture from family that had recently returned from a trip to Lebanon. I soon realized that family traveling to Lebanon was considered the best way to have your favorite spices or ingredients brought back to the United States.
The excitement in the room was surprising to me—how could this jar of spices have everyone drooling over the anticipation of man’oushe (a flatbread covered with the za’atar spice blend and olive oil) coming out of a hot oven soon.
My husband encouraged me to taste it and he sprinkle a little into the palm of my hand. I pinched a little between my fingers and gave it a taste—it was woodsy, gritty, pungent, lemony, and like nothing I had every tasted before. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what all the fuss was about. But as I started to use za’atar in my cooking I understood all the possibilities for its use and it has become one of my favorites. I now too drool at the sight of a fresh bag of za’atar arriving from Lebanon.