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Za'atar, a spicy key to peak mental performance

صعتر is both wild oregano (Majorana syriaca or Origanum syriacum) and the seasoning mixture comprised of dried herbs, toasted sesame seeds, ground sumac, and salt. Thyme, oregano and marjoram — especially the last two, which are often confused with each other — are closely related and can be mixed together or substitute each other. Sumac, another Middle Eastern flavoring, characterized by its deep red berries and often sold dried and ground into a coarse powder with a tart, cranberry-like flavor. In lieu of sumac, za'atar can be made with citric acid powder and dried lemon zest. Lemon thyme can also add that sour accent. There are regional differences for Za'atar and families often have their secret recipes.

Jordanian za'atar "the green kind" is mostly thyme, plenty of sumac, and sesame seeds. Sumac is not commonly included in Israeli variation, it's primarily composed of thyme, oregano, salt and sesame. The Lebanese blend will feature a predominance of thyme, whereas the Syrian version might tastes fruity and take on a brownish hue from pepper and cumin and it's taste is radically different from the Lebanese. When zaatar is harvested, the best part is made up of the small leaves, which are ground into a fine powder. The twigs and larger leaves are used commercially (mixed with bran and citric acid) and therefore not as good.

In Bible, where it is call eizov (often translated as hyssop, though biblical hyssop was something different from the plant that today we call hyssop). In the Bible, eizov has many uses. Probably due to its antibacterial, antifungal, and antimicrobial properties, it is part of rituals for cleansing lepers and purifying those who have come in contact with the dead. Israelites, according to the Torah, also used eizov back as their days in Egypt, when they employed sprigs of it to sprinkle lamb's blood on their doors to be spared the death of their firstborn sons.

There is no reference to its having been eaten, although the New Testament Gospel of John does tell us that Jesus’ followers gave him a “sponge of vinegar” and “put upon it hyssop” to ease his thirst when he was dying on the cross. They may really have done so, or else John was simply using the hyssop as a symbol of what is lowly and humble, as it is referred to by the Book of Kings when it relates that King Solomon’s wisdom encompassed everything great and small, “from the cedar tree that is in Lebanon even unto the hyssop that growth out of the wall.”

Parthian Kings (ancient Iran and Iraq) loved it so much they had it made into a perfume. According to Pliny the Elder, za’atar was a key ingredient in a “Royal Perfume” that was used by Cleopatra as her own signature fragrance in the manner of other ancient monarchs.

Za'atar has been shown by medical studies to have antioxidant properties, and also to stimulate antimicrobial activity against such pathogenic microorganisms as Salmonella typhimurium and Staphylococcus aureus. The antioxidants in thyme were even powerful enough to fight off acne-causing bacteria. Dried oregano has thirty times the brain-healing antioxidant power of raw blueberries, forty-six times more than apples, and fifty-six times as much as strawberries, making it one of the most powerful brain cell protectors on the planet.

Sumac is full of flavonoids, and thyme and oregano are both packed with iron, manganese, calcium, fibre, 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). Crushed leaves have been used to treat tooth decay & gum infection. At a Portuguese university, scientists found that it might prevent food poisoning.

In the Levant, there is a belief that za'atar makes the mind alert and the body strong. For this reason, children are encoraged to eat a za'atar sandwich for breakfast before an exam or before school.

Carvacrol involved in the modulation of mood, anxiety, cognition, sleep regulation and appetite.

Researchers are really just beginning to explore what it does once it gets there. In mice, it seems to travel from the blood into the brain relatively easily. For example, a study 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. If regularly ingested in low concentrations, it might determine feelings of well-being and could possibly have positive reinforce effects.

Culinary uses of za'atar:

  • If you need a spreadable mix, stir through some really good olive oil or into hummus.

  • Spread on pita or flatbread, and bake or put under the griller.

  • Work some into the top of fresh bread dough before baking.

  • Strew over salads.

  • Sprinkle over roast or steamed vegetables.

  • Cover bread dipped in very very good virgin cold pressed olive oil. The quality of the olive oil is the key to the success here.

  • Dredge oil-coated chunks of feta in it.

  • Add a little to a vinaigrette – 3 parts olive oil, 1 part lemon juice, crushed garlic, chopped parsley, salt and pepper and zahtar.

  • Substitute either for garlic in garlic bread.

  • Sprinkle on to hummus or yogurt with a little bit of olive oil.

To make your own za'atar mix


2 Tablespoons dried thyme

1 Tablespoon roasted sesame seeds

2 Tablespoons dried marjoram

2 Tablespoons dried oregano

1/4 Cup dried sumac

1 Teaspoon sea salt

Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Mix well. Taste and adjust ingredient proportions to your liking. Store in a well-sealed spice jar or plastic bag in a cool, dry place. Keeps for several months.

#Herbs #Kitchen

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