The History Behind Zayt and Za’atar
Zayt and Za’atar is a Middle Eastern snack consisting of oil (zayt) and a thyme-spice mix (za’atar) that I grew up eating as a kid. It may not sound all that appetizing, but dipping warm, fluffy pieces of pita bread into the zayt and za’atar was a source of real comfort for me growing up. It is still one of my favorite snacks – no matter what time of day it is – and it is probably even more comforting for me now than when I was young.
So, when I came up with the idea for this blog (which I will get to eventually), the concept of Zayt and Za’atar seemed like a natural fit. Two strong and savory flavors that work as beautifully apart as they do together. Two flavors that stand boldly on their own – but compliment each other in unforgettable ways. Just like my mother and me – when she was still alive.
My parents grew up in Ramallah, Palestine. I was born and raised in Houston, Texas. I was a fat kid who loved food. My mom was a self-taught cook who used food as a way to nurture her kids both nutritionally and emotionally. So many of the memories I have from childhood include food. It’s not just the eating of her food that remains with me, but also the time and energy my mom put into picking the best ingredients and preparing the Arabic dishes that I miss so much today.
Making traditional Arabic food – not the stuff you get in most water-downed versions of Middle Eastern restaurants – takes a lot of time, patience and skill. I was too young to appreciate just how labor-intensive cooking this food was for my mom and she died before I realized it would be something I’d miss as much as I miss her.
I was 13 when my mom lost her battle with breast cancer and it wasn’t until recently that I conceived an idea that might allow me the opportunity to connect to her memory in a way that would feed both my inner fat kid and that part of my soul that has been missing for almost 20 years.
Which brings us full circle back to Zayt and Za’atar.
Over the years, my mother taught herself how to cook using recipes from her family and from random other sources and she compiled it all into this notebook that she titled “Nawal’s Cookbook”. A lot of the recipes are written in Arabic, so it is currently being translated by one of my aunts.
It’s important to me to learn how to make the food I grew up eating. It connects me to my culture, my personal history and to a mom I never really got to know. My hope is that as I teach myself how to cook using my mother’s cookbook, I will be able to learn more about her short life, more about me and more about the food that helped create my culinary palate.