Zahtar

Zahtar

This tasty yet underrated Middle Eastern dip is an intensely
flavoured spice-and-nuts combo, a staple of Iraqi and Palestinian
cuisines and a signifier of how these nations see themselves.

Origins
Zahtar (also spelled za’atar) is both a dish in itself and a herb plant, the purifying properties of which were revered in Roman times and in Ancient Israel under King David. In both manifestations, zahtar resonates through Arab society as a symbol of home and homeland: it is a reassuring element of one’s deep roots in the land, but also, in the case of the Palestinians, a symbol of longing for homelands lost.

SERVES 6

You’ll need
150g (5oz) sesame seeds
60g (2oz) coriander seeds
90g (3oz) walnuts
Salt and pepper to taste
1½ tbs cumin powder
¾ tbs cinnamon powder
¾ tbs sumac powder
Arab flatbread and olive oil
to serve

Cooking Method
1 Toast the sesame seeds under the grill or in a dry frying pan until they begin to pop and turn golden. Do the same for the coriander seeds and then the walnuts.
2 Using a pestle and mortar, crush the seeds and nuts into a powder (but don’t pulverise the mixture).
3 Add the salt and pepper and the remaining spices and mix well.
4 To eat, dip the bread first in the oil, then in the zahtar.
TIP Sumac powder (a citrus-tinged spice) is widely available from Asian or multicultural grocery stores; in some countries you’ll even find it in mainstream stores. Store leftovers in an airtight jar and they will keep.

Tasting notes
The texture of zahtar will be unusual for those expecting a smooth, hummus-like dip. Its consistency is more powdery than creamy, which is why unctuous olive oil is as much an essential component as the khoubz (Arab flatbread), to soak up the powder and alleviate the dryness. Cinnamon, cumin and coriander contribute to a sweetness that is invariably the first impression. But there’s also a hint of sourness that lingers, thanks to the deep-red berries of the sumac bush. Walnuts add a trace of bitterness for good measure. In this dish’s heartland of Iraq and the Palestinian Territories, the soulful stringed oud, earnest conversation about politics and the arts, and Arab pop music would undoubtedly accompany your eating experience.

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