By Carol Goodman Kaufman / Special to the BJV
Fresh and fluffy, hot-from-the-oven pita bread, dipped in olive oil and za'atar, is one of my favorite Middle Eastern comfort foods. Or is it za'atar sprinkled over hummus that makes me think of palm trees and oranges? Or maybe Yotam Ottolenghi's scrumptious butternut squash with red onions, tahini, and za'atar?
Regular readers of this column may recall that Joel and I, while busy chatting with the mechutanim in Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market, neglected to see what the tea vendor was loading into his bag. Well, apparently we like to chat because (no comments from well-meaning friends here, please), while we were distracted by talk about our amazing mutually-held grandchildren, we also bought a huge bag stuffed with za'atar — enough to give to our three kids, neighbors, and friends. They were thrilled to get it.
But what exactly is za'atar? Well, that depends on whom you're asking. The word itself refers both to the herb-spice mixture from which it is made, and to the wild plant itself. But that wild plant can be one of several varieties of the lamiaceae family. As if that weren't confusing enough, thyme, oregano, marjoram, and hyssop are all members of that same extended family.
Then we have the mixture, which can be comprised of dried oregano, thyme, marjoram, hyssop, sumac, toasted sesame seeds, and even salt. As with other Middle Eastern spice blends (e.g., ras el hanout, baharat, hawaij), cooks from the banks of the Euphrates all the way west to the Mediterranean shores make their own variations of za'atar.
Za'atar has been part and parcel of Middle Eastern culture for millennia. In fact, the word ezov (hyssop) occurs several times in the Torah, although not as a food product. We first encounter it in the account of the Passover sacrifice in the book of Exodus, in which the children of Israel are told, “And ye shall take a bunch of hyssop [ezov], and dip it in the blood [of the sacrifice]… and strike the lintel [of your homes] and the two side posts….” Elsewhere in the Torah, hyssop is used in purification rites.
(Having said all that, although ezov is often translated as hyssop, it is distinct from the modern hyssopus officinalis.)
Among other ancient peoples to have used za'atar were the Egyptians. They revered the herb so much that they entombed their pharaohs with it. In fact, archaeologists have found za'atar buried in King Tut's tomb. I don't know if olive oil and pita were also included in the care package.
Za'atar was even made into a perfume during the Parthian Empire (the guys who defeated the Seleucids of Hanukkah infamy.)
In the 12th century, as august a figure as doctor and philosopher Maimonides was a fan of the stuff. A man ahead of his time, he is reported to have prescribed it to patients to treat a variety of ills, including colds. And now, modern research supports his beliefs, showing evidence of za'atar's healing properties. For example, sumac is full of flavonoids, and thyme and oregano both contain antioxidant, antiseptic, and fungicide properties. One of these properties, thymol, is used to control coughing fits in patients with bronchitis.
Maybe even more exciting, researchers are now studying one particular feature of both thyme and oregano: carvacrol. When administered to rodents, carvacrol affects levels of dopamine, the neurotransmitter involved in the brain's reward system. It also affects serotonin, key to learning and mood.
Even if scientific lab results are still in the early days, people across the Middle East believe so much in za'atar's powers that they feed the herb to their children before their school exams.
But it's the culinary uses for za'atar that will make your kitchen send out wafts of alluring aromas. Open your windows while you cook and just see how your neighbors will magically appear on your doorstep!
Roasted Cauliflower with Tahini Sauce
1 large cauliflower, cut into florets
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter, melted
2 tablespoons za'atar
Sea salt and pepper
For the tahini sauce:
4 cloves garlic, minced
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
½ cup tahini
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
6 tablespoons water, more as needed
Preheat the oven to 425˚F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Drizzle the florets with the oil and melted butter and toss to combine.
Add the za'atar, salt and pepper and toss again.
Spread the cauliflower evenly on the baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes, until cauliflower turns golden brown.
Now, for the tahini sauce:
Whisk together all the ingredients, adding more water if needed to reach a creamy consistency.
Serve with the cauliflower.
Carol Goodman Kaufman is a recovering psychologist and criminologist with a passion for travel and food, and a lifelong love of storytelling. Her two picture books, Once in a Full Moon and Pirate Ships and Shooting Stars, encourage children (and their readers) to develop their imaginations while learning about the wonderful things in the sky. Her short stories appear in the mystery anthologies A Plot for Any Occasion and Psycho-Logical, and her first novel, The First Murder, is in the queue right now with TouchPoint Press. She's still trying to find a home for her food history/cookbook. (If you know a literary agent, please let her know!) Carol invites readers to browse her blog at https://carolgoodmankaufman.com/a-moveable-feast/, and to listen to her podcasts ”Skygazing With Carolinda” (for kids) and ”Murder We Write,” for interviews with crime writers. Both can be found wherever you get your podcasts.