“Tastes, smells, plants and food are the anchors of memory ”
Lien and Nerlich Politics of Food (2004)
Humans are wonderful creatures! A picture can transport you back to last summer’s vacation, a song from your favorite cartoon turns you into an 8 year old cheerfully singing along, ready to take on the world, and a spoonful of white bean stew can transport you back to your mother’s kitchen on a cold winter afternoon with the sound of rain playing in the background, the soup (and her smile) warm you inside and out.
Today I am sharing one of the anchors of my memories with you: my grandmother’s recipe for Zaatar fteer. This simple looking bread packs a real flavor punch. It is layered with green zaatar leaves, onions and sumac. All those beautiful flavors play against a flaky bread canvas. The unique folding technique and the use of olive oil with every fold gives the bread a unique irresistible texture and a nutty earthy note that you just have to try.
But before getting to the recipe allow me to share a little bit about my love affair with zaatar with all of you
Jonathan Safran Foer once said:
“Food is culture, habit, craving and identity.”
Like most Palestinians, zaatar to me is so much more than a herb/ spice blend. It is part of my Palestinian Identity.
For hundreds of years, Palestinians have harvested the green zaatar leaves. They are an integral part of the Palestinian cuisine. You can say that Palestinians as a nation have a deep rooted love affair with zaatar. We tend to use it for anything and everything! We use it to make sandwiches, Manakeesh (Flat bread topped with a mixture of zaatar spice blend and olive oil), all sorts of pastries, spice rubs, salads, warm and comforting drinks and natural remedies for colds and flues. Those little velvety heart shaped green leaves with their sharp peppery smell are interwoven with childhood memories for most of us but all that is not the only reason why zaatar has a special place in the hearts and souls of Palestinians.
You see Zaatar in Palestine, grows in the mountains. It is a wild plant that you usually find in the cracks of stone slabs. The wild zaatar plants are strong and defiant. You can cut off all the stems yet as long as you leave the roots in the ground, it will grow back again. Its smell is strong, its taste is peppery, sharp and it sets your taste buds on fire.
When the occupation came, many of the Palestinian poets and authors used zaatar as a symbol for the resistance because of the defiant strong nature of the wild plant. Zaatar slowly became a symbol in the Palestinian culture for not giving up , for holding on to your roots against all odds, for Palestine the homeland, for resisting the occupation, for our right to exist as a free nation.
That is why you are more likely than not to find a little bag of zaatar in the suitcase of any Palestinian who is traveling away from home. You will find it on their breakfast tables, in their kids’ sandwiches, in their poems and bedtime stories. It is a little lifeline we all carry that keeps us connected to our roots. It keeps the dream alive that one day we can grow again, wild and free under the sun.
Before getting to the recipe, allow me to explain something that I have received quite a few questions about. Zaatar is the Arabic word for oregano. The word is used for anything and everything that is made from oregano: the oregano plant itself, dried oregano, and even for the spice mix made using oregano, sesame seeds and sumac!
To help alleviate the confusion, there are terms for the different subcategories:
Zaatar akhdar (green oregano): refers to the fresh oregano leaves used to make salads, different types of pastries and warm and comforting winter drinks (fresh oregano+ boiling water+ honey= the ultimate drink to treat a cough)
Zaatar nashef (dried oregano): refers to dried oregano leaves, these are added to marinades, spice rubs and sauces
Zaatar Dukka: refers to the spice blend made using dried oregano, sesame seeds, sumac and a variety of other spices
I hope this helps clear out some of the confusion and answer some of your questions
Palestinian zaatar fteer
You can find the cheese filled version of this fteer here
To make 8 fteer squares
- 1 kg all purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon yeast
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 3 cups water (see notes)
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 1/2 cup vegetable oil
- 3 packed cups oregano leaves, washed, drained and dried
- 1 medium onion chopped finely
- 1 tablespoon sumac
- 2-3 tablespoons olive oil