Every so often, a new cookbook comes out that catapults a certain ingredient into the culinary spotlight.
British-Israeli chef and food writer Yotam Ottolenghi’s books have done that to two herbs that are common staples of the Israeli/Palestinian spice rack: sumac and za’atar. Thanks to Ottolenghi’s widely-shared roast chicken recipe, these two herbs are now enjoying some fame abroad.
Za’atar, or hyssop, is a prepared spice mixture that’s generally made with ground dried thyme, oregano, marjoram, toasted sesame seeds and salt.
Sprinkle it on hummus, on bread...on anything you want, really.
In Jerusalem’s Old City, where purveyors sell traditional Arab bread loaded onto wooden carts, extra za’atar is distributed in tiny pieces of paper that have been twisted into cones. Untwist the paper and dust it over the bread. Right there, with the city’s ancient stones beneath your feet, you’re tasting history.
In Nazareth, our Delicious tour visits a tiny taboon (oven-fire) bakery making their version of "pizza" slathered with za'atar, olive oil and local farmer's goat cheese. Heaven!
Sumac is a reddish-purple spice that has lemony zest, making it a great choice for chicken, meat, fish and salads alike. Thanks to its tart flavor profile, it can be used as a substitute for fresh lemon juice and is a great alternative to salt for those looking to reduce their sodium intake. You often find sumac also hidden inside of za'atar to balance the bitter flavor.
Historical side note, sumac was used by tanners in the Antiquity (Egypt and Greece) to tan leather. Today, we are mostly using the coloring for tanning our grilled onions for our street food. An amazing magic happens that leaves the color red and the bitterness replaced with sweetness.
So load up your luggage with these (now trendy) herbs, and bust them out when you want to be transported back to Israel through your tastebuds.