za’atar salad

Since I last posted, I don’t really have much to say for myself food-wise. Late nights in the lab learning advanced digital editing software, long meetings trying to plan the production of a satire magazine, early-morning swims and hours studying Media Law have resulted in meals of bananas and hummus-cucumber roll-ups. (Not together, mind you).

Save for a chocolate cake made with the summer’s frozen zucchini (will post on that one, soon), I haven’t been cooking up any show-stoppers lately.

zaatar salad

And that’s OK, isn’t it? It’s these times when I’m glad I wrote blog posts months ago and stored them up, like little jars of oats, for a bleaker tomorrow. It’s also interesting how some things you think are tossed away come back and speak squarely to the present.

On a stifling day last summer I made an Israeli salad in a kitchen that had sumac, a spice I’d never cooked with. Now, nine months later, I’m going to Israel. I put the pictures on the back shelf to share with you sometime when it seemed right, and now here it is, newly appropriate.


It’s called Za’atar Salad and is a dish often deemed Israeli but eaten all over the Middle East. If any of you have seen the film The Visitor, Mouna makes this salad for Walter when he first joins her for dinner. It’s the most sensual salad-making scene I’ve seen in a long time — the way she juices the lemons by hand over the bowl of glistening primary colors.

I leave a week today for Jerusalem, a place that has existed largely in my imagination. It’s the place where my faith has its roots. I am imagining it will feel strangely familiar, almost enveloping. I know it will seem alien, too, separate and distinct from this North American Christianity I have been nurtured in. Sites might seem like felt board scenes or picture Bible pages writ large.


A Barn Birth. A Good Samaritan. A road in Damascus. Anger in a temple-turned-marketplace. A goblet of wine and some bread. A betrayal and an ear, cut away from a cheek. One man’s death, and a cold stone tomb. All these stories swirling in the dust, suddenly louder than words. It will likely be touristy, politically charged, mystical and commercial all wrapped up like a gyro, and yet I can’t wait.

My companions will be thirteen other students and three of the chaplains from Syracuse University’s interfaith chapel. Like this salad, we will be a colorful mix of personalities and stories, flecked with the new flavors of a place we might not have been able to visit in another time. Muslims, Jews and Christians we will share our stories and play their colors off each other. As this simple salad did, maybe we’ll show each other a new way of experiencing the ingredients of the three Abrahamic faiths.

And so while I prepared rather poorly for Lent this year (yoga followed by free pancakes at IHOP), a visit to the Holy Land seems like a good way to kick-start my journey toward the joy of Easter. I think it would be so easy to feel pressure regarding a trip like this, especially if you’re a person who derives part of their spiritual identity from the place. You know, pressure to see the right things, feel profound emotions, that kind of thing.

I think I’ll just try to take it all in—slowly, and making sure to chew after every bite.

Za’atar Salad

This salad takes well to creativity, so go ahead and throw in whatever you fancy: grated feta, chickpeas, watercress, hard-boiled eggs. Or throw it in some pita bread with a dollop of Greek-style yogurt.

serves 4


1 cup peeled, seeded, and diced cucumbers
2 cups cubed fresh tomatoes
1½ cups chopped yellow bell peppers
½ cup diced red onions
1 Tbsp minced fresh thyme
1 Tbsp toasted sesame seeds (toast in a toaster oven for 2-3 minutes until fragrant)
1 to 2 tsp powdered sumac, or to taste (available at Samir’s if you live in Syracuse, NY; the herb lends a tangy, almost lemony-hot distinctiveness to the salad)
1 Tbsp good quality extra-virgin olive oil
2 Tbsp juice from the freshest lemons you’ve got.
½ tsp salt
fresh cracked pepper to taste
¼ cup minced fresh flat-leaf parsley (optional)


  1. Toss all ingredients together in a serving bowl. Serve at room temperature or chilled.

Adapted from the Moosewood Restaurant New Classics
Per serving: 97 calories, 2.4 g protein, 5.4 g fat, 12.2 carbs, 0 cholesterol, 312 mg sodium, 3.1 g fiber

7 thoughts on “za’atar salad

  1. Illa
    March 2, 2009 at 11:04 am

    Sounds wonderful and I think I will wait for a “stifling summer day” and serve this chilled!

  2. Dawn
    March 2, 2009 at 2:03 pm

    Beautiful photos and I can’t wait to hear about your trip — sounds wonderful!

  3. Aunt Meredith
    March 6, 2009 at 8:56 pm

    I will be thinking of you on your trip Jen. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog- the salad sounds divine…Jerusalem in Lent. Very special.Be safe. Lots of love,

  4. March 9, 2009 at 7:34 pm

    Wow Jen – have a great time in Israel. I didn’t know you were going! That is going to be such a fascinating trip. Can’t wait to hear all about it.

    1. January 1, 2013 at 7:59 am

      Sweet story. How I wish I could pay back my Israeli cousins (who also live in the North) who have alawys treated me so well on all my trips to Israel. I guess just by visiting once again

  5. Kim
    August 2, 2011 at 11:46 am

    Za’atar is an Arab creation, thus it is a complete misnomer to call it Israeli or to associate it with Israel in any way. Any connection between the two is usurping of an Arab food by the Israeli people, much like the land of the Palestinian people. (I am not Arab, but wanted to correct a misconception.)

    Thank you,

    1. Jen
      August 2, 2011 at 11:54 am

      Sorry for the inadvertent political statement. The recipe I used called it Israeli, and I don’t research every dish I make too extensively. I did also say in the post that it’s “a dish often deemed Israeli,” which seems to suggest that there are differing opinions on its origins. Thanks for your comment.