Olive oil has its back; it also likes to schmooze with dip and fresh pita bread and it's said to possess brain-boosting power, so much so that Middle Eastern kids are often told to eat it in the mornings before their exams.
Whether you've taken notice of it or not, the spice za'atar has a lot to say and we're all ears and tastebuds.
So what exactly is it? A staple throughout the Middle East, za'atar is an aromatic herb used to flavour dishes and season bread. Sitting somewhere in between thyme and oregano, za'atar is a wild thyme that refers to both the fresh herb, as well as the herb mix, which includes dried za'atar, sumac, sesame seeds and salt, with variations that also use marjoram or oregano, rather than thyme. When the oil is added, the za'atar becomes easily spreadable on flatbread and this is how a large part of Lebanon, Syria and Jordan start their day.
While the herb itself can be quite mild, when blended it becomes its own spice of life. With a slightly zesty finish, it easily complements your salads, bread and dips, makes a great coating for your cheese before lightly frying, sprinkle over eggs or use simply as a dry rub on your lamb or chicken.
What I adore about za'atar is that it represents just how flexible spices can be and how much of a starring role the right spices can have in a dish. The ratio and ingredients can vary from region to region - Jordan takes on a more sumac-centric blend, while the Lebanese version is usually more citrusy and zesty.
What might also be quite obscure for some is that it can be eaten as is, dry, and it doesn't make you wince (try it for yourself).
When visiting the family home of Adal and George Jarouge in Food Safari's Earth (episode 5), it was quite mesmerising to see their humble garden filled with za'atar. Having arrived from Syria in 1972, they wanted to establish their own herb and vegetable garden to replicate the produce they would have at home, and za'atar was one of them.
Adal makes everything from scratch using her small backyard garden; the only things she buys from the store are her detergent and cleaning products, her son Tony jokes.
Adal picks the herbs and air-dries them on a nifty net-style contraption that George built for her. Once Adal has prepared her za'atar blend, she then spreads it on her freshly made dough before handing it over to George, who's on standby to cook them in his reclaimed and restored baby blue oven that sits in the corner of their backyard.
Their warmth and care they take to food and cooking have had a great impact on their family and friends; so much so that their son Tony, alongside cousins Sharon and Carol, run their own Syrian restaurant Almond Bar. This eatery pays tribute to the food, culture and gatherings their family has come to call home. Za'atar and manousche are such a big part of their diet and as children manousche wraps with za'atar, labneh and cucumber, were a staple, Sharon tells SBS.
"Essentially the dough needs to be handmade and thick enough to absorb the za'atar and oil, but not so thick it's chewy, so about 3-4mm is a good thickness."
It's also important to give time to rest and aerate, says Sharon. But the most important thing for making the ultimate manousche, "is to not use a spoon, but rather your hands to almost press the za'atar and oil into the dough, so the flavours can absorb".
Watch Adal make her own za'atar blend and manousche, then you can get hands-on and make your own with this recipe.
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