I heard that in the old days, Lebanese schoolchildren ate warm pita bread spread with a mixture of za’tar and olive oil before leaving home on exam days. People believe that the fragrant spice, herb and sesame mixture gives strength and clears the mind. The sweet flavor of toasted sesame seeds is wonderfully complemented by the red, sour-tart sumac in this classic Arab spice blend. There are many version of the spice mixture throughout the Middle East:The green Lebanese za’tar consists of toasted sesame seeds mixed with just the local herb za’tar and sumac. In Syria the gold-colored blend may have more spices –cumin, paprica, caraway, fennel seeds etc.
The particular kind of Syrian or Lebanese thyme –za’tar in Arabic — is different from the Greek or the European common thyme, or the hyssop that you will see listed in some recipes for the spice mixture. As the particular kind of Middle Eastern herb is not readily available, I prefer to use a combination of dried thyme and savory. But as with all spice mixtures, the ingredients and proportions are a matter of taste, so feel free to experiment with the variations, additions and substitutions that you prefer. (more…)