In one of Jean McLarenís latest Palestine journals, she talks about a lovely day spent picking olives with some local women. In the midst of this war-torn country, she was able to enjoy the simple pleasure of warm bread topped with a herb mixture she had not tasted before, zahtar. Jean, you obviously donít know whom you are dealing with here! I not only know all about zahtar, but I have a jar full and use it quite regularly.
I became acquainted with this spice when our family hosted a young boy from Haifa, Israel. This was part of an exchange in which our son Paddy and a group of teens from Calgary spent four weeks in the homes of host families in Haifa, and we hosted these same kids in our homes the following summer. A large part of this exchange was sharing each otherís cultural traditions and food played a large part of this.
On one evening, our visitors prepared a dinner of their national foods for all of the hosting families. They had packed into their duffle bags and back-packs as much of their traditional foods as international customs allowed. We enjoyed foods such as hummus, pita, and falafel with assorted toppings. We noticed that most of the dishes were sprinkled with an odd mixed seasoning that we didnít recognize. As part of our hostess package, we had all received a box of this spice mixture which we were told was called zahtar, but the box was written in Hebrew, and non of the kids seemed to know (or care) what it was made of.
We tasted and speculated, and the best we could come up with was that there definitely were sesame seeds and we reached a consensus that there was most likely thyme, but there was this other, sharper but not unpleasant taste that we couldnít identify. Being the food expert in the group, it seemed to be my duty to do some research.
The mystery ingredient was sumac. Sumac grows wild throughout the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Its deep-red berries have been used in the cuisines of these countries since ancient times. The seeds contain a high concentration of malic acid, which gives them the mouth-puckering quality of lemons. In Roman times, and in countries where lemons were not commonly available, the sumac berry was often used as a substitute for lemon in cooking.
The sumac berry is used whole where available for some recipes, but it is usually dried and ground into a fine powder. This powder can be used alone as a seasoning but is more often used with a combination of seasonings in zahtar.
The word zahtar (also spelled zatar) is the Arabic word for thyme. As our group of culinary sleuths had determined, the other major ingredient in the mixture is thyme. The most basic zahtar consists of sumac, thyme, sesame seeds and salt, but there are many other variations that can also include oregano, savory or hyssop.
In the Middle East, it is common to find this spice mixture sprinkled on fish or salads. It is particularly good as a seasoning for tomatoes and it makes a great dry rub for meats, especially lamb. It can also simply be mixed with yoghurt to make a dip for pita or vegetables.
I have since bought more zahtar. I can usually find it in Middle Eastern grocery stores, or any store that has a good selection of spices. Unfortunately, I havenít located anywhere in Nanaimo to get it yet, but I know a few places in Vancouver. I use it often for rubs on meats and put it in my homemade burgers and meatballs. It also makes an interesting spice for egg dishes.
And of course, as Jean has discovered, mixed with olive oil, it makes a delicious and aromatic topping for fresh baked pita breads.