The New Yorker magazine featured Lebanese restaurants in Manhattan in their latest issue (July 7, 2014) and one of them is called Au Za’atar. It talks about “its homemade fluffy pita bread brushed with olive oil and sprinkled with za’atar, a vibrant blend of thyme, sumac and sesame seeds.”
I had my first taste of Zahter (its Turkish spelling) in Cappadocia, Turkey.
I arrive in Cappadocia after a long bus ride from Pamukkale and Hieropolis to spend four wonderful days as the guest of HTR (Hit The Road) Travel. The owners Solmaz and Ahmet Kucukyildiz are incredible hosts. I stayed in one of their hotels, MDC Cave Hotel in the town of Urgup, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Yes, it is a cave hotel and it is carved into the rocks. That is one of the amazing things about Cappadocia. You can carve an entire house into this type of rock, called Tufa. Years ago, I heard the simplest description of Tufa: You can carve with a spoon, but it is as strong as concrete. Solmaz Hanim (this is how you address women in Turkey: add Hanim, meaning “lady” to their first name) and Ahmet Bey (this is how you address men in Turkey: add Bey. Meaning “sir” to their first name) renovated an old settlement carved into rocks and turned it into a magnificient five-star hotel. Each room has large wooden doors and beautiful wood-framed windows with lace curtains and opens up to a patio of upholstered chairs and coffee tables. You wake up to the sound of the roosters, chickens and cows. And once in a while, you hear the sound of the hot-air-balloon gliding over the hotel.
After an incredible day with our tour guide from HTR, Fatih Cakaci, we return to the hotel exhausted and hungry. It is time to eat a wonderful dinner. The waiter helps me choose a delicious entrée and a glass of wonderful Cappadocian wine. While awaiting my meal, they serve a wholesome homemade bread with olive oil and an exotic spice mix on the side for dipping. That is when I meet Zahter. (Zahter can be a great name for a girl!) I can taste the sesame seeds and the sumac. I cannot identify the other herbs and spices. Solmaz Hanim tells me it also contains chick peas and an herb which, itself, is called Zahter. I check on the Internet. This herb, Zahter, grows wild in the Taurus mountains. Not sure where else it grows. This herb is a variety of thyme – blue-flowering type.
Solmaz Hanim orders this amazing mixture of spices and herbs from Southeastern Turkey, one of the best culinary regions of Turkey. But, my internet exploration shows this mixture has a multi-national fame: Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Armenia, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Tunisia, Turkey, and more.
2 tablespoons minced fresh thyme
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
2 teaspoons ground sumac
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
Stir all together in a small bowl. “
I think using a mortar and pestle is a better way to mix these ingredients. It makes it almost like a powdery paste and releases the aroma of the sesame seeds.
Another recipe is from http://mideastfood.about.com/od/middleeasternspicesherbs/r/zaatar.htm:
“1/4 cup sumac
2 tablespoons thyme
1 tablespoon roasted sesame seeds
2 tablespoons marjoram
2 tablespoons oregano
1 teaspoon coarse salt
Use a food processor or a mortar and a pestle, grind sesame seeds and add the other ingredients.”
“Dried zahter is a rich mixture of crushed zahter, sesame seeds, crushed cooked chickpeas, cumin, nigella seeds, sea salt, sumac and many more.”
Hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
On my last day at Cappadocia, Solmaz Hanim gives me a large bag of zahter mix along with a beautiful scarf as my departure gifts. I am enjoying both. I cannot thank them enough for those four great days in Cappadocia.