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Za'atar: A Spice Mix With Biblical Roots And Brain Food Reputation

Jun 11, 2013
Originally published on June 14, 2013 11:27 am

NPR Morning Edition Host Steve Inskeep recently traveled to Damascus for a series of reports on the ongoing war in Syria. He sent this postcard from the road.

Dear Salt:

On my first day in Damascus, I went walking in the ancient bazaar — narrow stone-paved streets surrounding a great stone mosque. The mosque is so old, it used to be a church during the Roman Empire, and before it was a church, it was a pagan temple. The bazaar is surely as old as the mosque, for Damascus is a historic city of trade.

My colleague Nishant Dahiya directed me toward an incredible aroma he'd detected at the door of a spice shop. I bent down and sniffed the gray stuff. It was oregano. It filled a bag about the size of a 5-gallon gas can. The smell was strong but not hot, rich but sharp. The shopkeeper, noting my appreciation, grabbed a scoop and put a little on my hand to taste.

Some days later, we were exceedingly hungry while driving on a highway outside Homs. Our driver, Neda, pulled over at a roadside stand. "They have za'atar," she said. Nishant knew exactly what she meant. I'd never heard the word.

Three men lounged on plastic chairs at the stand, which was right by the highway median, in a clearing in the bushes. One worked a black baking oven. I never found out what the other two did. A glass case held several of the round, flat Middle Eastern flatbreads called khubz. Some were smeared with cheese, some with a paprika sauce, and some with za'atar. I chose the latter two, and the man shoved them into the hot coal oven with a paddle — the way an Italian cook might insert a pizza.

The paddle was one of only two special utensils the cook used. The other utensil was a common tree saw, with an orange handle, absolutely identical to the one in my storage closet at home. I presume he used the saw to hack down roadside trees to feed the fire.

When the bread emerged, I smelled an incredible aroma that I knew I had experienced somewhere before. After a moment, the image came to me: Damascus, the bazaar, the great bag of oregano just a few days ago.

"It has other ingredients, too," said Nishant. "Sesame seeds crushed into it." He said it's eaten all over the Middle East.

I immediately wanted to write you about this, Salt, but Nishant discouraged me. He said za'atar is far too common to be interesting. He reacted as if I had proposed to ask you the story behind ketchup. And this made me wonder: What is the story of ketchup?

But I digress. Over the hours that followed, it became apparent that Nishant might just be right. It seemed that I was the only person around who did not know from za'atar. Completely by chance, I heard from a friend in Pakistan who loves it. Then the subject came up over dinner in Damascus, and a friend informed us that when she was growing up, she was urged at school exam time to "Eat your za'atar!" Apparently, some people think it's brain food.

Anyway, the roadside serving of za'atar on bread was an astonishingly simple food, simple enough to love it. The za'atar was just spread over the hot bread like butter on toast. That was it. I'd eat it again. While I wait to encounter it again, Salt, here's what I want to know: Where does za'atar come from? How long has it been around? What, besides oregano, is in it?

And is it brain food?

-- Steve

Dear Steve,

Eaten in the Middle East for centuries, za'atar has a fascinating history. The word refers both to the alluring spice mixture that you encountered, and to the wild oregano (Majorana syriaca or Origanum syriacum) from which the mix derives (the latter za'atar, by the way, makes several appearances in the Bible).

Just what's in your za'atar depends, in part, on where you are in the Mideast. But generally speaking, it involves some combination of ground dried oregano, thyme or marjoram, ground sumac, toasted sesame seeds and often, salt.

As for za'atar's reputation as health food, that goes way back, too. In the 12th century, the great Spanish Jewish philosopher Maimonides is said to have prescribed it to his patients to treat a variety of ailments.

Modern studies into za'atar confirm that Maimonides was really on to something. Sumac is full of flavonoids, and thyme and oregano are both packed with thymol, an essential oil, and carvacrol, a phenol. Both thymol and carvacrol have antioxidant, antiseptic and fungicide properties. Thymol has also been shown to help control coughing fits in patients with bronchitis (which might explain why Maimonides recommended za'atar to treat colds).

But is za'atar brain food? Well, there's this tantalizing tidbit about carvacrol: At least in mice, it seems to travel from the blood into the brain relatively easily. Researchers are really just beginning to explore what it does once it gets there. For example, a study published this May found that, when administered orally to rats, carvacrol affected levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine — which plays a key role in the brain's rewards system — and serotonin, which is important to learning and mood.

But don't use that as an excuse to gorge nonstop on za'atar. We're talking rodents here. As they say in science: More research is needed.

-- Maria

Update: June 12 — is it thyme or oregano? After we first published this post, Beirut Correspondent Kelly McEvers wrote to tell us that in Syria and Lebanon, the stuff Steve smelled is what locals refer to as wild thyme, though we might call it oregano or marjoram. Palestinians also call the herb thyme, says Jerusalem Correspondent Emily Harris.

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