Adventures of Spice Girl: Tracking Down the Mind-Opening Za’Atar

By Carol Pagliaro

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When I was a little girl my friends and I dreamed one day our Fairy Godmother would appear, wave her magic wand, and turn us into Cinderella. That never happened – alas – but along the way to living my life the Food Fairy appeared, sprinkled me with oregano, and said, “Henceforth, you shall be known as Spice Girl.” Ever since, I have had the most excellent adventures in the pursuit of exotic and elusive seasonings.

Imagine my excitement when I learn of za’atar, “the spice combination that opens up the mind.”

I become aware of this glorious concoction when my Food, Wine and Travel book club, based at Cornerstone Books in Salem, decided to read The Foods of Israel by Joan Nathan. She tells us za’atar is sprinkled on pita bread with a little olive oil for a Middle Eastern breakfast bruschetta, and that it’s used as a topping on pizza and pasta, a dry marinade for chicken or fish, and a tasty addition to salads and vegetables.

Nathan also informs us that Israeli parents feed it to their children for breakfast because they believe it opens up their minds and makes them more alert as students.

My search for za’atar began in the international foods aisle of the Super Stop & Shop in Swampscott, which carries an assortment of products from the Middle East, and it doesn’t end until I dig out the Syrian Grocery Store on Shawmut Avenue in the South End. There, after yet another wondrous journey, I came face to face with za’atar and discovered a portal to the Middle East just 30 minutes from my home.

Joan Nathan’s personal recipe for za’atar:

Take ¼ cup of dried oregano and thyme, 2 tablespoons of dried sumac, ¼ cup of roasted sesame seeds, and salt to taste. Remove any twigs, and crumble the oregano and thyme between your fingers into a bowl. Add the sumac, sesame seeds, and salt to taste.

This is not a purist’s za’atar, but it is a flavorful first cousin. Note that South End Formaggio, right next door to the Syrian Grocery Store, carries one of the recipe’s main ingredients, sumac.

Carol Pagliaro, aka Spice Girl, is a guest writer for today’s WGBH Foodie blog.

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