Za’atar … a zesty and zany spice!

Za'atar spice sprinkled on a pita, just like I devoured for four years at McGill U.

Well, it’s been a long time – too long a time – since I posted here, and I feel pretty lazy about it. The truth is, I was home with my family in Pennsylvania from before Christmas to just before New Years, with a little jaunt into Baltimore in there sometime. And while I definitely scarfed down my fair share of meals while at home, I didn’t cook anything new. I did whip up a breakfast of stewed prunes and Dutch pancakes for my family after Christmas – to happy mouths – but I haven’t made anything since then worth posting. Since I’ve been back in New Jersey, I’ve been sick and haven’t cooked much – and what I did attempt was unsuccessful, unfortunately.

So, there are my excuses for not posting! However, I did get several good ideas for future food items which I’m sure I’ll be posting about soon – my mom’s curried beets, cardamom-cayenne spiced tilapia, and some sort of cinnamon tarts/rolls/puffs. I suppose the break was a good chance to recharge, in that respect. While my belly was a-filling, my brain was a-ticking….

Being Christmas, of course, I did receive some very lovely gifts, and I’m very thankful to my family for them. My older sister was thrilled to receive Calphalon pots and Chicago cutlery, but I think I was luckier for a gift which most (sane?) people would laugh at: spices.

Yes, spices – but not just any old spice. You see, for years now I’ve been searching for the spice blend called za’atar, or its most crucial component, sumac. In fact, ever since I graduated from McGill University (situated in the center of lovely, wonderful, homey, bustling, beautiful, exciting, addictive, enthralling, and all-around-perfect city of Montréal, Quebec) I’ve been looking high and low for za’atar: in supermarket chains, specialty food stores in NYC, tiny ethnic groceries, and hole-in-the-wall markets, all to no avail. Why did I search high and low for this mysterious spice, you ask?

Hmm … the answer is part nostalgia and part deliciousness. You see, on all of campus there was one independently run café, and it lived in a tiny but delightfully aromatic corner of the basement of the architecture building. They fed hungry architecture and engineering students (like moi and my fellow nerdy yet ravenous friends) something different: homemade samosas, pitas, Jamaican beef patties, tomato and herb focaccias, and loads of freshly baked muffins, bread loaves, and cookies. But of all those goodies, the first things to go every day were the za’atar pitas; you had to be there before 11am if you wanted one (and be sure, we were … twice a week, probably). They were just regular pitas – though fluffy and soft – but when brushed with olive oil and dusted generously with the tart, zesty, and tangy flecks of za’atar, they were transformed into something else entirely. There was always an initial bite that turned me off … but then my taste buds craved more of that addictive flavor and it was all over. The memory of that flavor kept me – and my friends – going for four years of college, and since then it’s put me on a wild and crazy search for, of all things, a spice.

It’s not just any old spice, though, clearly. Apparently, if you mix crushed sumac berries, thyme, white sesame seeds, and salt, you make magic. Did you know that? Like curry, za’atar is a spice mix that varies from region to region. It originated in the Arabian peninsula, and there are infinite varieties found throughout Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Israel, the Palestinian-held lands, Egypt, and now other parts of northern Africa. The particular type of za’atar I discovered at McGill was green, but it definitely had the tang of sumac; however, the variety I was given for Christmas has a distinct reddish hue, which is indicative of the sumac berries it contains (apparently, and it’s characteristic of the Lebanese version).

Which takes me to my newest hero, Penzey’s Spices … where I finally found my za’atar (which can also be spelled zatar or satar, by the way). This is a fantastic site, if you’ve never been there before. I made out a little Christmas list thanks to it, and Santa was very kind to me: he gave me Ceylon cinnamon, Vietnamese cinnamon, sumac berries, my za’atar, galangal (a pungent Thai spice similar to ginger), and marjoram (hey, it was cheap and it’s hard to find in NJ). Penzey’s spice choices are broad, well-priced, and high quality. Plus, it’s a good ‘ole, Made in America company found right in Wisconsin (where my heart partially lives, along with my Packers). Can you get any better than this?

The answer is no. And, the answer is also Get yourself some za’atar – you will fall in love also! (And if you happen to fall in love with Montréal as well, more power to you … that makes two of us!)


10 thoughts on “Za’atar … a zesty and zany spice!

  1. I love Penzeys! That’s where I order all of my spices from. I’ve never heard of za’atar, though…sounds intriguing!

    I can’t wait to hear about the cardamom-cayenne tilapia–I love, love, love cardamom!

    Happy new year, nightowlchef!

  2. As soon as I saw the word spice in the title I knew Penzeys would be here some place. I adore Penzeys, however, I never noticed this spice in the catalogue (oh so many goodies:) I’ll have to give a check online.

    I truly admire your tenacity in searching for your Za’atar. It brings to mine days of yore when spices were worth more than gold.

    Cookbooks & Spices for Christmas and I would be in heaven!!!

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  5. I know I’m years behind in comments! But I’d came across your blog after I found this “spice” I too have been searching for ….25 years! I first had this nostalgic encounter with this spice as a child back hiome in of all places Jamaica! Yes, my grand father had a Syrian Bread Bakery that he sold to a family friend. This family friend added this bread variation to the menu. And boy oh boy! It’s been a life long hunt to find it, because as a child I didn’t know the name of this mysterious unforgettable tarty spice! So fast forward 25 years later with kids of my own and wanting to create a unique Middle Eastern dish I ventured out to get a couple items. I can’t explain how I KNEW it was it, but I just knew! I didn’t know that it was called Sumac. But I was like a mad woman hugging and sniffing the package of this Sumac spice. Reality struck and I gathered myself and became somewhat civilized:) I left feeling dazed as if reunited with my long last love! Im still in disbelief that I stumbled upon it and was doing a search to see if it was indeed true. Then I came upon this blog and was in sheer glee (yes! I’m a nerd too)! Well hope you are still around and hi to you all that have this spice crave in common:) Btw, this Za’taar I’m wondering includes what exactly? Obviously Sumac…but what other spices?

  6. Wow, great to read your comment! This blog has, sadly, fallen by the wayside, but I’m glad the posts are still read. Sumac is definitely a unique spice, and you’ll know it when you taste it. Coincidentally, I used sumac tonight in a turkey breast marinade – and I haven’t used that spice in quite awhile! Za’atar contains sumac, sesame seeds, thyme, and salt. That’s the red version. The green version, which I found a few years ago at a spice store in Printer’s Alley in Seattle, doesn’t have sumac and may have additional herbs in it. This is my favorite preparation for it:
    Enjoy your sumac!

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