Zeit oo za’tar: a home comfort

Image description: a kitchen counter

Coming to Oxford has been a terrible recipe metaphor: a sponge of excitement, iced with anticipation and topped with a sprinkling of anxiety. I am a cook by nature, enjoying the process, the time spent chopping, dicing, grating. I enjoy the monotony, the ability to lose myself in simple processes that come together to make something wonderful. At home I cook for hours, looking forward to the end product, but find intense pleasure in the journey that it takes to get there.

I didn’t know whether I’d want to cook at Oxford. My college, Hertford, has an excellent reputation for food, and, as a vegan, I appreciate their commitment to facilitating a range of diets. But when it comes to 6am, when I start to get hungry, what I really yearn for is the heat from the oven, the sizzle as onions fry, and the copious amounts of olive oil coating the pan. This is why I decided to cook.

My love of cooking comes from my memories of watching my Tata (Arabic for Grandmother) cook. I used to spend hours in the kitchen, watching the chopping, dicing, grating. It was exciting, all colour, sound and texture. I learnt to cook from sight and sound, out of love but also necessity – my home oven’s temperature markings have all rubbed off from overuse. This has set me up to fail, however, as I triggered the fire alarm the first time I tried to cook in college!

Taking a break from my studies, I decided to walk to a Palestinian/Lebanese grocery shop I had passed on a night out. There, I indulged, buying squash, baby aubergines, tahini and plenty of za’tar. It was a delight for the senses. Whilst I cannot make my darling hummus due to lack of a blender, I do intend to drizzle tahini over everything and fry chickpeas for a study snack. My college kitchen now feels like home – resplendent with the sizzling of onions, the roasting of butternut squash and the crunch of cucumber. I cook therefore I am, and so I have begun to exist at Oxford.

I cook therefore I am, and so I have begun to exist at Oxford.

After having almost single-handedly consumed a housemate’s ginger cake, I now need to think of other ways to fill my cross-country-enhanced appetite. Usually served as part of a platter for breakfast, I would encourage any ravenous fresher (or reader in general!) to try the very traditional but entirely amazing zeit oo za’tar.

This is a simple one: less of a recipe, more of a way of life. To begin, you must carefully source your bread. I would recommend a white pitta, but not of the day-old, shop-bought variety. This bread must be soft, supple, with the ability to soak up copious amounts of liquid. If you can get your hands on it, fresh ka’ak or taboon bread is magnificent. But, for the unorthodox, a toasted slice of wholemeal bread will do.

With the bread acquired, you must now track down your zeit (olive oil). This is vital. Anything less than extra virgin will not do. Olive oil is the lifeblood of Palestine and so, to do the dish justice, it must be excellent. Filippo Berio is a good place to start.

Now, onto the star, za’tar. Many of you might never have encountered za’tar. Maybe it was something dusted over a salad, or scattered over a roast at a formal. But za’tar is more than an adornment or spice. It is a wonder. Your za’tar should be flavoursome, not dusty or bland. You need to be able to see sesame seeds, and the thyme should be dark green due to the drying process it has undergone.

So, you’ve assembled your dream team. Now, set out two small bowls (or mugs if you are especially reluctant to wash up). Pour some zeit in one, and tip a few tablespoons of za’tar in the other. This is zeit oo z’atar. Dip your bread in the zeit to coat, then use this to pick up the za’tar. Do not be afraid of the zeit or za’tar here – the more the merrier. Then, stuff it in your mouth as fast as you can before the bread breaks! Repeat until you run out of either, then top up and repeat again.

Zeit oo za’tar is a ritual that brings me closer to home.

Zeit oo za’tar is a ritual that brings me closer to home. It’s not the chopping, dicing or grating that I adore about cooking, but the familiar and comfortable, and it does wonders for the soul. So, I implore you to try zeit oo za’tar, especially when you’re feeling hungry!

Image Credit: Becca Tapert via Unsplash