When you need some magic
by Heidi Sistare
There are foods with histories so long and meandering that they slip between categories of language, ingredient and region. Za’atar is an Arabic word whose definition is full of the mystery that comes with many translations and new spellings. The word is used for the combination of wild marjoram, any of the herbs in the mint family, and a popular spice mixture used in Middle Eastern and North African cooking. The verdict is out on whether it is the same mixture referred to as hyssop in the Bible, whether it was found in King Tut’s tomb, and, as food writer Joan Nathan suggests, whether it was the last food Jesus ate.
Here on Martha’s Vineyard, with snow melting outside and the world beyond this Island feeling so far away, za’atar is magical. Za’atar, a local spice mixture, made by chef Jan Buhrman of Kitchen Porch, is a combination of tastes that is both familiar and exotic: subtly nutty sesame seeds, woodsy thyme, sweet oregano, tart sumac seeds, and salt. This is Jan’s own combination of spices, but za’atar might also be made with marjoram, coriander, cumin, or fennel seed, depending on the region or family recipe.
There is something about the alchemy of za’atar swirled with golden olive oil in a ceramic bowl the color of coffee with cream, and then pushed onto pieces of soft flatbread, that creates a whole which can not possibly be explained by its parts. Because here I am, on a cold New England morning, in a little house with cedar shingles, transported to places I have never been before: Lebanon, Morocco, Armenia, Israel. My toes feel a little warmer, and my brain, ever susceptible to suggestion, is just that much clearer and alert (one of the rumored benefits of eating za’atar).
Chef Jan, in one excited breath, lists dishes that za’atar complements best: roasted eggplant, broken potatoes, a traditional Middle Eastern hummus (more sesame seeds than chickpeas), green salads, and grilled zucchini. How many of these dishes can be consumed for breakfast right now? Then she talks about how beautifully za’atar combines with her preserved lemons, for example in a quinoa salad with preserved lemons sprinkled with za’atar as a finish, always as a finish, she says, because za’atar is at its best in the last moment—full of texture and flavor.
The Kitchen Porch’s za’atar is made from organic spices sourced through Frontier Natural Products Co-op. You can purchase glass jars of the za’atar for $12.99 at LeRoux on Main Street in Vineyard Haven. Use za’atar as I imagine you would use fairy dust, a sprinkling when you need some magic.