I recently watched a news story from Australia in which a Lebanese Australian called the confiscation of his mother-in-law’s zaatar by Sydney airport customs officials “a tragedy” and “a disaster” and when he still couldn’t convince the officials to release the vacuum packed zaatar, he told them he wanted to speak to a member of parliament. There, but for the grace of more merciful US customs officials, go I—and almost every other Arab American I know. Who amongst us hasn’t had a mother or aunt get out a bag of the stuff for our suitcases every time we journey off to foreign lands?
Zaatar is a mixture of wild thyme and sesame seeds that, mixed with olive oil, is an essential part of breakfast and even supper in Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and Jordan, and beyond. It is tied with chocolate in my refrigerator as the number one comfort food, and something most of the characters in The Night Counter would have grown up eating for breakfast.
It might not sound like much of concoction, but it has hundreds of variations, with different thymes and different levels of roasting or not roasting changing the flavors, not to mention the unique mix of herbs added to zaatar that vary from village to village. And there’s nothing that brings back the Levant as unlocking that aroma in the bag your relative tucked into your suitcase.
Zaatar is the most democratic of Middle Eastern foods, loved by all classes and ages, as I always witness in Jordan at Ismihan, a shop that offers over 15 varieties of zaatar, which change with the seasons, all displayed in big wooden bins from which customers diligently sample before picking the varieties they’ll take home to make their own mixture at home.
Fusion cuisine has hit the Middle East hard, like everywhere, and now you’ll find zaatar being a seasoning for almonds (kind of like Arabic Chex Mix), roasted chicken, croissants, and countless other ideas, some more unfortunate than others, although you can never go all that wrong with zaatar. But perhaps the best way to eat zaatar is at the local bakery, where it is mixed with olive oil and baked on flat bread in a wood burning oven and called manaeesh.
There are a million zaatar stories, but I will end with this one—there was a war-injured boy from the Middle East in Los Angeles for treatment that was staying with me for a few days. This was such a great kid and had just gotten out the hospital, and so we laid before him—not just me, but everyone else that took part in his care– all the wonders and decadence of food in Los Angeles for him everyday, but one day at breakfast he looked at it all, trying with all his politeness to muster enthusiasm, and then gave up and turned to me and said, “Don’t you have any zaatar? Please.” And of course, I did.I’ve included a great dough recipe for manaeesh, but you can easily make these with Pillsbury pop ‘n fresh biscuits patted out into mini pizzas. The important part isn’t the dough—it’s the zaatar. When you go to a Middle Eastern grocery make sure that it is a relatively fresh mix and that it’s not too high in salt. In fact, you don’t need to even make manaaesh. You can just cube some bread and have your guests dip the bread in a mix of olive oil and zataar.
Makes three 8″ breads
For the dough:
1/2 tsp. active dry yeast
3 cups flour
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup vegetable oil, plus more for greasing sheet pan
For the topping:
1/4 cup green zaatar
6 tbsp. olive oil
1. For the dough: Dissolve yeast in 1/2 cup warm water in a small bowl and set aside until foamy, about 10 minutes. Combine flour and salt in a large bowl. Add milk, 1/2 cup of the oil, 2 tbsp. warm water, and yeast mixture and stir until a dough forms. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth, 10-15 minutes. Shape dough into a ball, dust with flour, then transfer to a large clean bowl. Cover bowl with a clean damp kitchen towel and set aside in a warm spot to rest until dough has doubled in bulk, 1-2 hours.
2. For the topping: Mix zaatar and oil together in a medium bowl and set aside.
3. Preheat oven to 400°. Lightly grease a sheet pan with some vegetable oil and set aside. Turn dough out onto a clean surface, divide into thirds, and shape each piece of dough into a ball. Roll 1 dough ball out on a lightly floured surface into an 8″ round and transfer to prepared sheet pan. Using your fingertips, make indentations all over surface of dough, then brush with a generous amount of the topping. Bake flat bread until lightly browned and crisp around the edges, about 10 minutes. Repeat rolling out, indenting, topping, and baking process with remaining dough balls and topping mixture, greasing baking sheet with more oil as needed. Serve warm or at room temperature.