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Spice of the week: zingy za'atar

In House and Leisure's September issue, we explore spice-infused recipes that are vibrant, textural and eye-catching, reminiscent of a painter's palette and proof that food really can be a work of art. In a four-week series, we look at the history behind some of these spices. First up is za'atar.

zingy za'atar

za'atar Image via The Spruce

Fragrant, tangy and with just a hint of nuttiness, za'atar is a simple blend of thyme, sesame seeds and dried sumac. This Middle Eastern blend is one of the oldest spices – even making several appearances in the Bible –  and is suffused with history and politics. Za'atar is typically used as a topping for Middle-Eastern flatbread and makes a great finishing spice for meat or as an addition to hummus. Apart from being delicious, it also has health benefits: in the 12th century, Spanish-Jewish philosopher Maimonides apparently prescribed it to a number of his patients to treat a variety of ailments, from the common cold to infections. Even in the age of modern medicine, we can see that Maimonides was onto something here: thyme is packed with thymol, an essential oil, and the phenol (carbolic acid) carvacrol. These have antioxidant and antiseptic properties, and thymol has also been shown to control coughing fits. Maimoinides also touted za'atar as brain food and, yet again, he's been proven right. Tests have shown that carvacrol travels from the blood to the brain quite quickly, affecting levels of dopamine and serotonin.
za'atar Image via Spice Trekkers

Politically, za'atar has ties to both Palestine and Israel and has been the subject of many controversial articles. In 1977, an Israeli law was passed to prohibit the gathering of wild za'atar (Hyssopus officinalis) in Israel as it was declared an endangered species. According to Oxford-based 'gastrodetective' Fiona Ross, restrictions have also been put in place in the West Bank and since 2006, Palestinians transporting the spice could face fines. Because of the tension between Palestine and Israel, it's easily assumed that these restrictions are not based on environmental concerns alone, but could also be tied to the age-old battle over land and food. However, Palestine also has a historical claim to the herb. Renowned Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish mentions it in his poem Ahmad al-Za'atar and also speaks of a Tal al-Za'atar (Hill of Thyme).
za'atar warm beetroot and goats cheese salad Image via Sean Calitz

While za'atar no longer belongs to any specific country, it certainly belongs on our plates. Find the recipe for a warm beetroot and goat's cheese salad, with a healthy helping of za'atar, in our #HLArtIssueonline and in stores now.