In search of a good thyme: can 'real' zaatar be found in the West?

Not all zaatar mixes are created equal, and not all can be created far from home

The St. Maron Catholic Church in Minneapolis hosted the Touch of Lebanon Festival this weekend with games and music, but an emphasis on Lebanese food. Women church members baked and sold over 1,000 slices of Zaatar bread, covering it with a seasoning sauce, then baking it on curved grills.    (MARLIN LEVISON/STARTRIBUNE( (cq(Photo By Marlin Levison/Star Tribune via Getty Images)
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One of the hardest things I had to figure out when my wife and I moved to Canada in 2018 was how to procure high-quality zaatar.

Zaatar is basically dried thyme, mixed with different spices and condiments that differ by region, and is common in the Levant. It comes in different forms, like spread out on top of a manousheh, the traditional flatbread breakfast staple, or coating balls of tangy labneh. Or you might have eaten it in its purest form: dipping a piece of bread first in olive oil and then in a zaatar mix in the bowl next to it. Restaurants, in my view, should do away with the butter and bread and simply replace it with zaatar and sourdough.

Not all zaatar is created equal though. Throughout my time in the Middle East, it was simple enough to come by zaatar mixes of varied provenance. I tended to generously add zaatar to a variety of foods because it made everything taste better. Growing up, I was a picky eater and became a functional one when I moved abroad. Yet, in my book, there were few simple savoury dishes that did not benefit from a liberal sprinkling of zaatar as a dressing or topping.

Two things changed this mentality and my approach to food more generally. First, I met my now-wife, who is Syrian. The way Syrians talk about their food and its absolute superiority to anything else they have eaten outside the country will give you the impression that no other cuisine needs to exist. And second, I got to partake in the sublime experience of tasting homemade zaatar prepared by a friend's mother in Amman.

R5CDN7 Raw Organic MIddle Eastern Zaatar Spices in a Bowl
Zaatar is a mix of dried thyme and sesame, mixed with different spices and condiments that differ by region, and is common in the Levant

The actual spice mixes used to make zaatar, particularly those based on homemade recipes passed down in families, make an enormous difference. Most include sesame seeds, while some use ground green thyme rather than the dried herb in the initial preparation. The addition of sumac to the mix yields wonderful tangy notes, heightened more so when combined with a bit of lemon zest. Those who have tried a wide swathe of zaatar variants will conclude that Jordanian zaatar is superior to all others, followed by Aleppo zaatar – a claim that, I must clarify, is not the result of pressure from my wife, who is from Aleppo.

For a nomad wandering in places where he did not belong, the scent of zaatar felt like home

As a reporter roaming around the Middle East, it was fairly straightforward to source these various zaatar mixes. I often came back from such trips with suitcases stuffed with zaatar. The best of it usually came in a malleable jar or plastic bag. For a nomad wandering in places where he did not belong, the scent of zaatar became, to me, home.

Procuring it, however, became more complicated when I moved to Montreal. As the supply of zaatar we brought from Istanbul dwindled, I asked friends and co-workers in the Middle East for help. I travelled briefly for a seminar to Jordan in October 2018 and came back replenished with my friend's homemade supply. A part of the reason I accepted the invite was the prospect of getting my hands on some zaatar.

I have been lucky with gifts. One time, a former boss sent me a fragrant package of the stuff from Lebanon. Another time, an editor at a website where I worked shipped some divine Palestinian zaatar from Haifa.

When I moved jobs, my new boss sent me a parcel of zaatar from his stash that had been brought over by family visiting him in Europe from Jordan. I retained other friendships at the time that were not zaatar-centric.

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Stuffed meatballs with zaatar

Realising eventually that my good fortune of being gifted zaatar was not sustainable, I searched for and found a small epicerie, appropriately called La Pistacherie, that was somewhat out of the way in Montreal but that sold the zaatar I sought. The place catered to the Syrian and Lebanese community in the city, so it did not have Jordanian zaatar, but it did stock rows and rows of the Aleppo mix, along with foods that I thought would be consigned to the day when I went "back home" – like rose jam, good pomegranate molasses and good Turkish coffee laced with cardamom ("good" differentiates what you find in speciality stores from the stuff in supermarkets that is bland rubbish, for the most part).

The other great discovery during the pandemic was the small-scale Arab caterers who made and delivered dishes of yore, like the lady who brought us homemade kibbeh, or the Egyptian family that brought stuffed vine leaves and koshari made to perfection. Unlike me with my picky eating habits, my toddler will happily devour the tastes of a home he has never seen – zaatar with olive oil, mutawam with garlic and zucchini, kibbeh, mjaddara, molokhia and others.

When we moved to Canada, we thought the world was small enough for us to endure the distance. We told ourselves it wouldn’t be too long before we went back home to visit, before our son would meet his grandparents, before we revelled in the company of friends and loved ones, before we revisited old haunts and savoured their tastes and scents that could never be truly and faithfully recreated elsewhere.

The pandemic ensured this was all a pipe dream. So for now, until the reunion, we console ourselves with the scent of coffee wafting as it boils over in the rakwa and the tang of zaatar, listening to songs we heard as children and basking in the warmth of other suns.

Kareem Shaheen is a veteran Middle East correspondent in Canada and a columnist for The National