In the mountains where Syria meets Lebanon, where a tyrant annihilates his own people while his wife shops for Prada and G&B online and everybody knows the sound and smell of war, there grows wild thyme called za’atar.
Za’atar occurs through Levantine cuisines and I had never heard of it until a bag of it arrived in a gift of food goodies from a friend the other day.
That’s the thing I love about writing about food. For everything you know, or think you know, there are thousands of things you don’t, which means there is always a world of discovery. Just open Larousse Gastronomique to any page and even the greatest culinary expert in the world will find something to learn. So no one’s an expert, really, except maybe the guy who wrote Larousse Gastronomique. And that was written by scores of people, so.
Za’atar spice and herb mixes generally focus on dried thyme (it need not be the original wild thyme, unless you fancy visiting the Syrian-Lebanese border, which is perhaps not the best idea you’ve had this week), mixed with sesame seeds, ground sumac (a tart, lemony spice), and a little salt. But often other herbs such as marjoram and oregano are included, and many recipes call for the sesame seeds to be toasted.
Other recipes will veer off and start adding all manner of other things. There are Middle Eastern versions with ingredients as diverse as savory, fennel, cumin, and coriander seed. But I would become less trusting the more ingredients are added. The herbs and spices, I read, are dried in the sun, so I imagine that the better or perhaps more authentic recipes would begin with fresh wild thyme and let the slow drying process intensify the flavours, enhanced by the other ingredients. But this is a journey of discovery for me, so if you know za’atar better than I do (which shouldn’t be difficult) please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and enlighten me.
What I do know, thanks to my great aunt Wikipedia (which sounds like a grouchy crone in a techno-age remake of The Addams Family or an updated nursery rhyme), is that za’atar was traditionally blended throughout the Arabian Peninsula and Iraq but was not known in North Africa, athough today it is found in Morocco and there are some people who believe it to be a Moroccan speciality, perhaps because we see that brightly-hued country as being a culinary hub.
But research suggests that Lebanese and Syrians regard za’atar as their own, and given that the wild thyme of the name does grow wild in those mountains, and that thyme is the chief herbal ingredient, there seems to be some pretty thorough vindication.
There is a Palestine variation, says Wikipedia, that includes caraway seeds, and the Lebanese version with its sumac is said to be merely another variation, and reddish in colour because of the sumac.
The version I was given is in fact green za’atar, so there is no sumac in it, and the dried herbs seem to win the day, dominating both colour and quantity, so if I were to have a stab at making za’atar myself I would toast plenty of sesame seeds and make sure there was a goodly amount of them in the mix.
Be that as it may, my quest was to try the spice blend with various dishes to try to get the hang of it, and lately I have cooked za’atar with pork, chicken and fish, all of which take to the blend very well.
You can add it to bread to turn a conventional loaf into something deep with flavour and interest, spinkle some on vegetables before roasting or grilling, on a pizza with olive oil and garlic, mix it with cream cheese, or roll meatballs in it to form a coating. I see no reason why you shouldn’t use it as a coating for a rack of lamb, say, or a beef fillet roasted whole. It’s a pretty exciting herb and spice blend to have in your kitchen arsenal.
So here’s what I did…
Pork loin roast with za’atar and sesame oil
1 x 1kg piece of pork loin, whole
2 Tbs sesame oil
3 Tbs za’atar
Salt to taste
Pork loin looks somewhat like pork belly, only with more meat; it’s a lovely pork joint for roasting as you have that super-tender, lean slab of pork flesh topped with a good layer of fat and skin to be turned into crackling. Because it’s slim, and has all that fat, it’s going to render down lusciously when you brown it and then roast it slowly for a few hours, just as you would a whole slab of pork belly.
Score the skin in strips with a very sharp knife. Brush the cleaned and dried pork loin with sesame oil, generously, on all sides. Pour a little more sesame oil in a heavy pan and brown the joint on all sides. Sprinkle za’atar all over the flesh sides and season lightly with salt, then turn and salt the skin side quite generously.
Transfer to an oven pre-heated to 160° and roast crackling-side down for about two hours, then turn the meat and continue to roast, or roast it at 150° (from the start) for longer. Keep an eye so that it does not overcook and dry out. Turn off the oven, leave the door ajar and let it rest for 10 minutes before cutting into strips and serving with wok-fried cabbage strips, and there’s no reason why you should not add some za’atar to that too.
I served mine with a sauce of the pan juices deglazed with white wine to which I added wholegrain mustard and reduced. With hindsight, this wasn’t the best idea as it masked the za’atar herbs and spices. But it’s a learning curve … I’d say rather deglaze with chicken stock with a sprinkling of za’atar and simmer that until it makes a thinnish sauce of enhanced pan juices.
First published in Weekend Argus June 2012