Is Zaatar the New Ras el-Hanout?

zaatar2A friend tells me that Chef Eric Ripert from “Le Bernadin” restaurant in NYC was on Top Chef this week, and the six remaining contestants were asked to duplicate one of the items on his menu, and one of the dishes was “zaatar-crusted monkfish”.

My fellow citizens, I think that we have finally arrived.

A few years ago, aspiring celebrity chefs couldn’t get enough of “ras el-hanout” a spice blend particularly prevalent in North Africa. One also saw harissa popping up on menus, along with fusion-ified couscous, hummus, tabbouleh and other dishes, all of which, by the way, are originally Israeli. 100% Yessiree.

But the presence of zaatar at Le Bernandin and on Top Chef means that Lebanon has finally gotten its foot in the door of the elite international culinary scene, and it’ll only be a matter of time before the French Laundry and the Gramercy Tavern are serving up mulukhiyeh, laban immo, and malfouf mihshe. Of course, they’ll probably call them Israeli mulukhiyeh, Israeli laban immo, and Israeli malfouf mihshe, but who cares? We’ll know the truth.

Ahhh, zaatar… I’m so proud of you. Crusting a monkfish with the best of ’em. Rubbing shoulders with all those bland panko, parmesan, sesame, and chili-cilantro-macadamia herb mixes. You’ve done us proud. I now know that I can walk into any restaurant in the world, look at a menu and say: “You see that guy there? Zaatar? Yeah, he’s one of us. He’s Lebanese.”

Until they change your name to Israeli zaatar.

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17 thoughts on “Is Zaatar the New Ras el-Hanout?

  1. You are killing me, Kifa!!

    Posted by Joshua Landis | February 5, 2009, 2:16 pm
  2. Geez R, read the article you linked to:

    Today, hyssop (Majorana syriaca L.) is basic to the pantry of local Arabs, eaten on freshly-baked pita bread dipped in olive oil and even chewed by the handful by some.

    Posted by Akbar Palace | February 5, 2009, 4:17 pm
  3. (my original post on Hummus gate)

    Enlightened Says:

    October 10, 2008 at 8:46 pm

    I have hope. Let me clarify.

    When my late father taught me self defense as a child, he did so on one very important proviso ” Do not pick on someone who is bigger, a bully, smarter or quicker than you,”

    It left me a little confused, the only people I can defend against were weaker or smaller than me, but why would they be stupid enough to pick on me who was bigger than them?

    What a dilema!

    I am surprised by the new war against the Israeli’s. Picture this from one Beirut Taxi driver that I spoke to recently:

    ” They have invaded us countless times, given us a massive refugee problem, Destroyed our infrastructure, Laid waste to our beautiful South, caused us misery and pain,stolen our and, left us with out hope and dignity and now lay claim to our Hummus and Tabboule”

    Not all hope is lost, at least they didn’t lay claim to the Kneffeh and Zaataar!

    At least this is a fight we have picked that we might have a chance of winning! You have got to love Lebanese intelligence maybe we are rediscovering that ancient phonecian “smart gene” again.

    Hope springs eternal.

    update: 6/02/09

    Now I have lost all hope! Whats next the sacred cedar? Ah what the heck just give it to them!

    Posted by Enlightened | February 5, 2009, 11:23 pm
  4. You’ve been getting sassy on here, man. I like it.

    By the by, a friend told me a story about an Iraqi woman who had put up Iraqi recipes in English online in hopes of bridging the gap between Americans and Iraqis via food. She was immediately flooded with accusations of trying to poison Americans, since her recipes included sumac. And only being familiar the itchier variants of the plant (poison sumac, poison ivy, poison oak), her American readers were convinced that it was an elaborate Iraqi ploy to poison Americans with Mesopotamian cuisine.

    Posted by sean | February 6, 2009, 6:01 am
  5. lol 🙂

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | February 6, 2009, 7:26 am
  6. QN,

    Do you know the range of the Za3tar plant? I’m just curious as to how far south it extends in our mountains.

    In my mom’s village in Metn we used to collect clippings from the wild za3tar plants. We also made a salad from the fresh cuttings, and my relatives still do. Basically consisting of fresh za3tar cuttings mixed with “Salamoune” onions, garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, salt & pepper. It’s a very potent salad. fresh za3tar is quite tangier than the dried variety.

    The salad is great with a kess of arak.

    If the plant doesn’t cross the southern border, then Israel doesn’t have a claim at all. Even if few stary plants grow there, we can claim that we control the lion share of the product.

    Next, they’ll claim our “Snawbar”. Mon Dieu!!

    Posted by Ras Beirut | February 6, 2009, 9:49 pm
  7. Ras Beirut,

    I have no idea what the range is. I have a feeling it is grown everywhere.

    Actually, an Israeli friend tell me that the vast majority of pine nuts sold in Israel are imported from China.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | February 7, 2009, 12:18 pm
  8. Thanks QN. Pine nuts are also harvested in many places around the world. However, the variety we have in Lebanon is the most thought after because of its sweet taste and big size nuts. That’s why the crop in Lebanon is sold quite quickly as soon as it is harvested. I think they have the same variety in Turkey and Italy but smaller forests.

    I brought some with me to the US from my last trip to Lebanon. My family and relatives in Metn still harvest quite a bit. It is very labor intensive as you can imagine.

    Posted by Ras Beirut | February 7, 2009, 1:10 pm
  9. The MFA article speaks, between its lines, volumes about a certain segment of Israeli society and its narrative. The whole thing is well worth reading.

    The highlight is perhaps:

    “…Local Arabs alone consume an estimated 200 metric tons of the condiment annually. At present, the plant has not yet recovered from over-harvesting, say conservationists….”

    Posted by JH | February 10, 2009, 5:34 pm
  10. Lebanese cuisine is well known and appreciated all over the world.
    Lebanese emigrated all over the world long long time ago, before the existence of Israel. Their hospitality made people of all continents appreciate the delicatessen of this exceptional cuisine.
    Man’oushe (zaatar and oil on bread), tabbouleh made of fresh vegetables, fattouche, etc… all these are LEBANESE and please stop pretending they are not. Just enjoy them and sheer to the Lebanese with an Arak drink.

    Posted by robert | October 10, 2009, 6:58 pm
  11. I am not surprised whatever the Israelis don’t have they take it and make it theirs. But no matter how much they try and copy-it it will never be as good as the way the Lebanese do it.

    Posted by Vivianne Sfeir | October 14, 2009, 11:05 pm
  12. This is the most interesting discussion I’ve read in a while!
    Yes, zaatar has been our own pride and glory thyme and thyme again!
    We used to be driven to school on those cold wet winter mornings in Lebanon. Sitting on our cold fingers, we sank in the car’s frigid seat in semi-consciousness listening to the radio and vainly trying to recapture the dream we were cruelly snatched from. One unique morning, between the da-dam-da-dam radio flashes, a lady announced in quite a sunny manner, that a study showed zaatar to be good for the heart as it purified the blood from toxins! It didn’t take much, the driver (who was not a relative) set himself as a mission, to take a long-detour and buy us kids a manouche 3ala zaatar… The world was falling to pieces, and this nice man (whose name I shamefully forgot) was intensely preoccupied with the purity of our hearts.
    It is, in my humble opinion, this particular incident (among many many others)that sheds light on the intimate relation between Lebanese and the zaatar plant. It is: one of generosity and openness (remember that old saaj lady who distributed free zaatar manouche to all kids in Beit Mery?– one of social affiliation and appartenance (zaatar wu zeit morning breakfast)– and one of wild and free existence (zaatar grows everywhere, even on the “Rond-Point Baabdat” amidst cars and shops).
    Without this intimacy, it is a mere abduction, a hijack, or just plain old merchants’ tale.

    Wow, this turned out much longer than I expected. I guess I will keep the Alaskan story of zaatar for the next thyme.

    Posted by Camille | October 15, 2009, 5:52 pm
  13. Speaking of Lebanese dishes… what did the tabbouleh taste like before the tomato was introduced in the Middle East in the 19th century?

    Posted by Camille | October 15, 2009, 6:12 pm
  14. Okay I would just like to say that hummus tabouleh and all that are NOT israeli. why do you think that in lebanon they made the biggest hummus and tabouleh dish to be puclished in guiness worl record. Clearly it was after israel tried to claim that this originated from them. Uhmmm thats wrong. Its pure lebanese, and people should know that.

    Posted by Layal | May 7, 2010, 11:44 am
  15. It’s all very simple. After we were done stealing the Black man’s music, we started stealing the Arabs’ recipes.

    Posted by samadamsthedog | June 12, 2013, 10:56 pm


  1. Pingback: The Tribunal is Dead! Long Live the Tribunal! « Qifa Nabki - April 30, 2009

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