A Visit to Abu Kassem Za’atar Farm

za'atar pita

One thing you learn quickly if you travel to, or somehow explore otherwise, the various cuisines of the Middle East, is that every country, and seemingly…every single person, has their own idea of what za’atar is. And they’re very (very) attached to it. So much so that a chef in a restaurant in Jerusalem rolled up his sleeve to show me a tattoo of what he told me was hyssop, a name for an herb that’s used in some places to make Za’atar, one of the world’s great seasonings.

fresh za'atar

Za’atar consists of herbs, sesame, and sumac, varying them by proportions depending on culture and country. But I can say that Abu Kassem of Za’atar Zawtar makes the best za’atar I’ve ever tasted, anywhere.

fresh za'atar plant

Standing in the middle of his field, watching him pull the herbs out of the ground, then going back to his small gas burner and mixer, and watching him make up a batch that you’re going to sprinkle all over your lunch in a few hours – well, it’s hard to believe that za’atar could get any better.

za'atar - Abu Kassem

When I went to Lebanon one of the first places my friend Bethany of Taste Lebanon took me to visit was his farm and one-room production facility. She’s spent the previous day telling us how great his za’atar was, and how lovely he and his wife were. And she wasn’t kidding.

toasting sesame seeds

I was surprised as you might be to learn that za’atar isn’t just a seasoning blend; it’s actually the name for an herb, which starts off its life looking a bit like standard oregano. But the plant is called za’atar in Lebanon, the same name as the seasoning. (There is an interesting explanation over at What is za’atar at Desert Candy which goes into detail of the similarities and confusion between the two.)

seasame za'atar pita

But everyone in Lebanon, and in other countries in the Middle East, have varying ideas about what goes into za’atar. And as I traveled through Lebanon and visited various bakeries, folks would come in and hand over a container of their own za’atar to the bakers (and often some of their own olive oil as well), where they would roll out and bake up oily flatbreads known as man’oushet za’atar, which people would come back later and pick up. And which I, myself, could not tear into enough of while I was there.

egg and za'atar pita

After a few minutes of looking at the plants growing around his house, we found ourselves standing in front of a long table with a suspiciously high stack of plates and glasses. Which, having already spent a few days in Lebanon, I knew what that meant – another great meal was ahead. The Lebanese are known for their hospitality, so not wanting to be rude, I quickly took a place at the table, right as the cavalcade of dishes from the kitchen of Abu’s wife Fatima, came tumbling out.

za'atar crew

In addition to the warm man’oushet (also called manouche), were cracker-like breads, which Bethany was surprised to see as she told me they were a specialty bread, and not easily available.

lettuce, tomato, radishFatima in garden
foul - bean dish from Lebanonworld's best foul
labnehLebanese olive oil

All the breads were lovely, as was the labneh and hard-cooked eggs from their chickens. But I had my own – recipe, please! – moment when Fatima ladled me a bowl of the best foul I’ve ever tasted. When I asked how she made it, in between spooning it up as fast as my little spoon-holding hand could carry me, she smiled, blushed, and modestly waved me away. Honestly, I didn’t know beans could taste so good.

village breads

Like most meals in Lebanon, you eat and eat and eat and eat. And then eat and eat some more. But you don’t feel overstuffed because the food is healthy and fresh. And it’s so good, that you don’t want to stop.

labneh + olive oil

And when za’atar, which has been grown, picked, and mixed just a few feet away from where you’re eating, is scattered over everything, it’s hard not to gobble everything down that’s put in front of you.

distilling za'atar water and oil

Less-tasty was the za’atar oil that Abu was distilling. I’d not heard of za’atar oil, but I’d had za’atar beer from 961 Beer, so thought I should give it a shot.

za'atar oil extactorza'atar oil

My friend Anjali and I tasted the water from the distillation, and it was so incredibly strong and completely undrinkable, so utterly what I never-want-to-put in my mouth again – imagine a truckload of herbs being reduced to a single drop – that you’d understand what I mean if you even tasted a drop of it.

awful za'atar watertesting za'atar water
horrible za'atar waterawful za'atar water

Abu made a bunch of health claims that he associated with za’atar oil and za’atar water, which I won’t repeat here, except to say that anyone who can get through a glass of this once-a-day deserves to be free of whatever ails them. My mouth was literally numb for hours afterward. But that didn’t stop me from wanting to see how he cultivated and made his own special blend of za’atar. Abu uses equal parts za’atar, sumac, and sesame seeds in his za’atar, along with a little salt.

za'atar growertoasting sesame seeds
mixing za'atarsifted za'atar

He said that by far the most expensive ingredient in his za’atar is the sesame seeds and said to beware of bags of inexpensive za’atar when you shop, because some less-scrupulous companies put sawdust or dirt in theirs. To combat any degeneration of Lebanese za’atar, he’s trying establish some sort of national standards to keep the quality high in Lebanon.

mixing za'atar za'atar production
finishing za'atarza'atar herb - fresh

The fresh plant leaves are also good pickled, which I learned while trying a molded cheese called Shanklish, whose flavor is heightened by a few pickled (or fresh) leaves scattered over the salad.

pickled za'atar

And I even saw an older man at another meal snacking on za’atar leaves, mindlessly pulling them off a branch and nibbling on them, after dinner one night.

finished za'atarAbu Kassem za'atar

A trip to the fields gave me a first-hand look at the za’atar plants; rows and rows of deep-green leaves spread out over the Lebanese countryside.

turtle wandering n za'atar field

We interrupted a turtle, making his way across the field as Abu pulled plants from the ground and telling us that in the old days, in Lebanon, an insult was saying a man was “like za’atar” because they don’t “grow” very well. (I’ll let you translate that as you wish.)

za'atar plants

But in recent years, it’s become a compliment because the za’atar plant is known for its endurance (yup, it’s a grower!), and that it’s hard to kill.

fields of za'atar

The scent just walking around his fields was nothing short of exhilarating – breathing, absorbing, and tasting the scents and flavors of za’atar was an experience like none I’d ever had.

za'atar

It’s been a few months since I visited. But I was so overwhelmed by that day with Abu that I had a difficult time trying to figure out how to sort through the experience. But I’m glad I did. (Well, except for the memories of the za’atar oil, which I don’t think I can ever forget.) And every time I reach into my bag of his za’atar that I brought home with me, the fragrance and flavor brings me back to his fields, as well being fortunate enough to have a place at their welcoming table that day.

za'atar

It was a wonderful visit to one of those very special corners of the world.

Abu in za'atar field


– Abu Kassem’s za’atar is available in Beirut at Souk el Tayeb.

– Thanks (I think!) to Anjali for taking snaps of me.

– Other posts about my trip to Lebanon; Al Bohsali Middle Eastern Pastries, The 12-Year Old Lahham, Lebanese Meze, Saj, Flatbreads, and Lebanese Pastries, How to Eat a Falafel in Lebanon, Lebanese Breakfast, and Another Lebanese Breakfast…and Two Lunches.

65 comments

  • You’ve managed to make me homesick for Beirut once more! So evocative – can almost smell the post. If that doesn’t sound weird (and no, I managed to refrain from actually sniffing my phone). Had Lebanese last night at our favourite falafel place in Sydney and wondering if it’s too much to go back tonight..

  • Lovely pictures of what sounds like a special experience

  • Amazing post, and so fascinating, since I adore za’atar! Loved the pics of you tasting the distilled za’atar :D

  • What an amazing experience to have – something you’ll remember for life I’m sure! These amazing photos and words are making me very hungry.

  • Thanks for the Zatar recipe. My SIL gave a small jar of Zatar to me for Christmas a few years ago — the first I’d ever heard of it. I should try to make my own because even though I love the taste of it the bought Zatar I received gives me indigestion — maybe mine is made with sawdust or dirt :O

  • Aarghhhhhhhhhhh sooo jealous! You remind me of my trip to Syria when we visited an area famous for it’s olive trees. The trees were just in bloom and the smell in the warm air…just incredible. I could not even begin to describe it. The middle East is such a beautiful part of this world :)

  • my most favourite post for some time (although I am still readig further comments on your last posts!)… such beauty, purity and – dare I say – love in both, photos and .
    texts.
    I leaarned about za’atar thanks to you and this brings me just closer to this ‘cuisine extraordinaire’.
    Thank You – I shall (again…) subscribe to the comments – a feast in small doses for my ever hungry eyes and tickled stomach!
    Kiki

  • If these beautiful photos are any indication, I can see why this experience moved you. And, since we all eat, I’m in continual wonder at why we can’t all get along?

  • I am now officially addicted to Za’atar having made the squash with vinaigrette…

  • Fantastic post! Za’atar is my new favourite seasoning. First learned about it last year when I had my first fatoush salad.

  • Wonderful article! I love za’atar. Some of the best I’ve had was actually in Paris where a friend and I stumbled across a bakery making a flat bread with za’atar that we bought and gobbled up as we walked. I wish I could remember where that was – it was more than a few years ago. I imagine it must have been around the jewish quarter/Marais I never know how to pronounce za’atar though. I’ve variously heard it said as zatter, zah-Tar, za-ah-Tar.

  • Hi, David! There are photographs of two herbs in this post – one that looks like rosemary and one that (I’m guessing) is of the za’atar plant itself. What’s the other, please?

    Thank you for your blog. I absolutely love living vicariously through you in your food travels.

    Judith

  • Claire: I liked visiting and presenting places like this here because most often, images of the region are unpleasant (at best) and there are regular, and wonderful, people living and doing amazing things and they’re not shown. It’s a pretty special place and I wish I could visit more countries in the Middle East. But as a Lebanese friend to me, “We’ve been fighting each other for centuries. That’s just what we do.”

    JVCMooreSC: They are all za’atar plants – in different stages of maturity. I was certain the first one was oregano (I’m not a botanist but botanically, I think it is – or of the same family.) I couldn’t believe they were all the same, but I saw them growing at different stages; the one that looks rosemary-like is mature za’atar.

  • David, what a fabulous story of za’atar at its source on Abu’s farm. I eat za’atar daily on everything from fried eggs to my thin, chewy man’oushe. Thank you for sharing the love of Lebanese cuisine!

  • David, I read the exact opposite conclusion about sesame seeds from a fellow blogger over an kitchn.com who obviously attended the same tour of the farm. He said that a surfeit of sesame = lower quality product. Something lost in translation maybe? Love the post by the way, wonderful arresting images.

    Rob

  • Lovely post. I wonder if the za’atar seeds can be purchased? I’d love to try and grow it.The photography was stunning and the food is a reminder that fresh and simple is often the best.

  • Hi Rob: I actually took notes (whew!) and was on the same visit with Anjali, and Abu said that there are 2 thoughts on sesame. One was because they were expensive – because they had to buy them – za’atar with more sesame seeds is considered to be of higher quality. But he also said that sesame can “bulk it up” so it can indicate lower quality. Interesting how Abu did say both, but that kind of contrasting opinions (and conflicting information), I suppose, is pretty “Lebanese” – at least that’s what my Lebanese friends tell me! : )

    Maureen: Sounds delicious! I love those flatbreads with za’atar and olive oil. Someday I will make them myself at home. There are places that make them in Paris, but they usually use low-quality oil and stale za’atar, so they’re not so great. Maybe I’ll give your man’ouche recipe with za’atar a try ~

  • Thank you for the post! :And your expression is priceless and no words needed with that face!:)

  • Lovely, evocative writing with gorgeous pictures. Can we expect more posts about Lebanon in the future?

  • Thank you for making me laugh aloud (your comment about the oil and curing whatever ails you)! And thank you for lifting up an aspect of this area we do not learn about on the evening news. If we should be so fortunate to visit Lebanon, how do we get to visit Mr. Kassem’s farm (and table!)? And….thank you for including pictures of yourself. I’ve been almost ready to write a wish that we would see more of you “in action” on your blog!

  • Just looking at the photos of the finished product, I would say that this nowhere near being the best “zaatar” (though to be fair, perhaps the crop is of a high quality), but what do I know – I’ve probably already consumed more of this stuff than all the readers of this blog put together (no exaggeration). Zaatar can bring out sensitivity among Levantines because each country thinks its zaatar is best – the Lebanese, Palestinians, Jordanians, and Syrians take this crop very seriously and each would like to believe that their version (when you say “zaatar” you generally tend to mean the finished mixture that you eat with oil and bread, which is also why on the whole Levantines don’t tend to think of it as seasoning but as a food in its own right) is best. I know which is best but I’m not saying as that could end being quite inflammatory!

  • David,
    As an Armenian-Lebanese-French-American-German-Swiss, Zaatar was what I was born and raised on, and it is still one of the first things I have to stock my pantry up with wherever I set up my kitchen. I haven’t been or felt the need to go to Lebanon in 23 years, but your posts are making me want to jump on a flight soon to share some of its wonders with my hubby. My parents and I used to go hiking in the woods and often picked these herbs in the forest. Manouches, fresh from the oven, dripping of oil and wrapped in a warm paper on my way to school: one of my favorite childhood memory.
    Thanks for your post.
    Sarah
    (Judith, I think you mean the Oregano picture?)

  • So, David, the recipe for te beans?? Or just your version of it. I guess it was seasoned with the zz’atar….

  • Oh- sorry I didn’t see David’s post earlier about what looks like oregano but is apparently also zaatar;)

  • Lovely post. Zaatar is among my favorite herbs and Lebanese foods. Man’oushe Zaatar is amazing at any time.
    I have never tried Zaatar water or oil.

    I have to note one things, the 2 different Zaatar you’ve photographed have 2 different purposes. The one with thin pointy leaves are to be used fresh in salads or next to Foul (fava beans) or dishes that require herbs with it, or pickled as you’ve mentioned.
    The second type, with rounded leaves, is dried, ground and mixed with sesame, sumac and salt to make the Zaatar that is mixed with oil for Man’oushe.

    Another thing, the man’s name is Abou Qasem (father of Qasem). You can’t call him just Abou.

    Lovely post I have to say. Lots of things to discover in the Middle eastern and Mediterranean cuisine.

  • Hisham: That’s the name on the bag of za’atar that they sell, and yes, Abou is spelled with a “u.” But I see most people spell it in English as Abu, not Abou, and that was how Bethany Kehdy writes it in English as well. So I went with her translation. (I wonder if it’s for the same reason ful, often gets translated as foul…?)

    Ruth: I’m not sure. I don’t think he’s open to the public, although if you were to call, he might let you stop by perhaps to get some za’atar? But I can’t say for sure. They do sell it in Beirut at the Souk that I linked to at the end, however.

  • David I know I love you- because your love of food and life always shines through your posts. Thank you for visiting this magical place and reliving the experience for us… Your blog alongside Rachel Eats are my absolute favorites, transporting me to places I love visiting people who remind us that part of the world has a heritage worth saving and honoring. This post is nothing short of award winning (! at least to me!)

    It brings back a flood of memories of my Syrian grandfather and his lovely fragrant pillowy light pita breads that he baked so early in the morning the scent would wake me better than any alarm clock- and isn’t that what a blog post should do! My dad has published 3 Syrian cookbooks on his own, basically from memory and while I’ve made his pita here in Brooklyn in their honor, nothing compares to Giddah’s.

    As for Za-ah-tah and your evocative visit to a place I can only dream about (our SY pronounciation) the thought of it makes my mouth water and I’m starting a batch of man-oushe right now. Keep em coming!

  • Thank you for sharing, variations on a theme of potency! The beautiful life, the plants, the flavors, the culture, the surrounding harshness of our world, and most of all the enduring change that is life itself. An excellent portrait of why it is so enriching to be connected to our food. I appreciate you’re giving us another way of seeing life in a region that many of us in the US really do not understand.

  • David, this is such an evocative piece of writing- I can smell, see, taste everything you are describing- oh, how I would love to visit Lebanon- sounds like an amazing place.

  • I have Zaatar for breakfast almost every other day, and I also use it in my Herb tea (Zoharat) in the winter, can you please email me his phone number In Lebanon, so when I am in Lebanon I can get my …share. Miss being there…only for the food, and the good time.

  • OMG, shanklish! Again I was introduced to it at Kalustyan’s, and nowhere on the web have I found much guidance on how to make it. So I’ve been improvising it at home based on the label of the container I bought in New York: I crumble/mash feta with olive oil, Aleppo pepper, black pepper, sweet paprika, and za’atar until it’s a rough paste. Unbelievable, beyond addictive–it provokes rhapsodies.

    David, did you have much shanklish on your trip? Any wisdom you can impart?

  • That was a truly enjoyable post with so many different aspects of this spice mix. I know you say your mouth was numb but I am so curious to see what the distillation was like!

  • Can I please order the za’taar from somewhere? The souk el tayeb didn’t offer a buying option! I need it lol :)

  • Hello,

    Some of the confusion about the plant zaatar might come from the links in combination with the post’s photos: one link highlights the plant name Origanum syiacum as zaatar; the Desert Candy link identifies Thymbra spicata as zaatar; and both species are shown in the post’s photographs.
    Both species are in the mint family, but they have distinct leaf shapes.

  • Heidi: I did have shanklish (I linked to a photo of it in the post) – and am glad to meet another fan as well. I love that cheese, too!

    coulda shoulda woulda: It was clear, like water – I think that’s it in the bottom of the jug with the orange za’atar oil floating on top.

    Maisk: The only place I know that sells it is the Soul el Tayeb ~

    Maggie: That’s right and the post I linked to at Desert Candy was correct. (The previous link to her site wasn’t working because I was using “smart quotes” in my html, which breaks links…) but her explanation is right and it is not Syrian oregano. This was a long post to put together with a lot of photographs to organize so apologies for any confusion.

    Maher: I don’t have his phone number and don’t know how to get in touch. Sorry.

  • Outstanding article/post, David. You expertly captured the hospitality and graciousness of the Lebanese culture that I experienced during our family visits each summer in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Would love to see Abu Kassem export his za’atar to the States.

  • In Eugene Walter’s “Hints & Pinches,” he says that hyssop plants in the garden keep pests away, but makes radishes lack flavor. He recommends using a sprinkle of hyssop leaves with a little bacon fat on bland veg like yellow squash, and also using on coals for BBQing and smoking meat.

  • Whole Spice in Petaluma, California sells Zahtar as a pure herb and also has a nice Zahtar blend.

  • I’m entranced and intreiged but clueless. Does this taste like oregano family or rosemary family?

  • So lovely to read about your day. We too had a wonderful day with Abu and Fatima when we went to Lebanon with Bethanya couple of years ago. She’s a super guide and the Kassems are such warm hosts!

  • David, thank you for your response. The fact that you do take the time to respond to us makes me enjoy your blog all the more!

  • Please, David, please try to convince L’epicerie de Bruno to source za’atar from Abu Kassem’s Za’atar farm.

  • So I’m a little confused. In some of the photos I see an herb with elongated leaves that look like rosemary or even tarragon. But in other photos I see an herb with rounded leaves that look like oregano or marjoram. For example the 2nd photo vs the 3rd photo. What am I looking at?

  • I grew up in Izmir and Ankara Turkey. I woukd love to see a recipe for a Turkish hamburger (does it have ‘lamb?) Our maid Fitnat was such a good cook!

  • My dear, the loveliest photos – they sing! – and your photos set the standard. And one could build a sitcom around David Tasting the Oil of Za’atar. The plant is available here, and now I’ll try to grow it. You had me at fragrance.

  • I’m obsessed with Middle Eastern food, and Lebanese cuisine especially. I can’t even imagine what this trip must have been like.

  • David how would you make a semblance of the flat bread in the first photo? I mean the za’atar on it, not the bread – would you brush olive oil on the bread and put on the grill or under the broiler and then sprinkle with za’atar? Or put the za’atar on before grilling? I must try this – I bought both za’atar and sumac when I was at Pike’s Market in Seattle recently.

    Another fabulous post, thank you. I always learn so much from you!

  • Do you know of a Lebanese cookbook that you would recommend? thanks….

  • Just wondering if you know of a good quality source of Za’atar in the States. Much thanks in advance – Debbie

  • Debbie: I don’t but best to go to a Middle Eastern store in your city or town if there is one and see what’s on offer. Take a sniff of the package, which will give some indication of the age (and quality!) A good mail order source for Middle Eastern foods is Kalustyan’s.

    Cate: Anissa Helou and Bethany Kedhy, have great cookbooks on Lebanese cuisine, and Yotam Ottolenghi & Sami Tamimi, and Claudia Rodin, all write excellent books on Middle Eastern cuisine, with a mix of cultures.

  • Thanks for the cookbook suggestions! In looking them up I ran across a blog of someone who had gone on Bethany’s Taste Lebanon tour to Abu Kassem’s farm. They mentioned the different looking types of Zatar (rosemary, thyme, oregano) were wild varieties of Zatar that he cultivates. The main crop of Zatar he grew looked like oregano — leading them to believe there were hundreds of varieties growing under the umbrella of wild herb.

  • In response to Camille’s question about seeds — Nichols Garden Nursery offers seeds of what they call Marjoram Zaatar. Marjoram and oregano are closely related, so maybe that’s what David saw?? At any rate, I have grown the plant (as an annual here in my high elevation garden) and it is a wonderful addition to all sorts of recipes. Nichols also offers Zaatar spice blend. Their website is but a google away. Our community is hosting and exchange student from Gaza in Palestine this school year and I plan on drawing from your wonderful selection of middle eastern recipes when we have him to dinner. Thanks for a beautiful (one of so many) post.

  • Very cool! Glad more people are spreading the word about za’atar in all its varieties and forms :)

  • I had what I think was za’atar sprinkled on a pretzel that I bought from a vendor outside the old walls of Jerusalem … three years later I’m still trying to recreate that flavor. I’m still not sure that I even have the right spice – what I had was more of a spice rub – but every time I see an essay about za’atar I’m reminded of one of my favorite travel moments. Thanks for sharing the farm’s story and images.

  • I probably said this before but we have a huge middle eastern population here in Michigan and most everyone has their favorite Lebanese restaurant. I crave it often and insider myself lucky to have so many options for sampling one of the world’s greatest cuisines minutes away. I’ve enjoyed all your Lebanon posts.

  • Thanks for this post. This was really interesting. Best BER

  • Hi, I’ve really enjoyed your posts, and it makes me proud being a Lebanese living in Lebanon. I just had to point out that “Abu” means “father of”, so Abu isn’t his first name. In Lebanon and most surrounding countries, people are called by “father of” or “mother of” their eldest son’s name. So it’s really funny you calling him just “Abu”. Anyway, thanks for all of your posts!(not only those related to Lebanon)
    -Best wishes

  • This is amazing! By the way if anyone wants to enjoy manousheh in NYC, try manousheh on 10 Kenmare. Its the closest thing to the real deal!

  • Is there a way to purchase his za’atar via internet or mail order? do you have any contact information for the company? THANKS!!!

    • I don’t know of any other way, except for the Souk el Tayeb in Beirut, nor do I have any contact information for Mr. Kassem.

  • Zaatar (hyssop) is an ancient plant that has grown wild on the shores of the Mediterranean for thousands of years. The best species is the wild one, and is a protected plant in Israel. It has long been considered a sort of natural “antibiotic” and been used to heal & cleanse since before biblical times. If eaten daily, the old folks swear it strenghtens the immune system. Zaatar oil is used in aromatherapy, is an excellent expectorant, calms, soothes & lowers blood pressure. Commercial zaatar is only good if grown from the wild strain. Some of the “improved” strains range from bad to awful. Lebanon is known for its superior zaatar, as its growing conditions are perfect for the plant and the Lebanese seem to have a majical touch with food. Summach is also a wild plant that has grown in the region since anyone can remember. In Hebrew, it is known as “Tanners Sumach”, as its red fruit was used to tan leather, in ancient times. Chrisitans may remember the story of the night Jesus spent on Simon the Tanner’s Jaffa rooftop, If you visit the place, which still exists, you will see the original stone tubs that contained the sumach, during that night. Sesame has grown wild in the Middle East for thousands of years, and has been successfully cultivated. It is customary for bagel sellers who peddle the street on carts to add a small portion of zaatar wrapped in a bit of newspaper, to dip the bread into. These ancient ingredients make up a truly divine treat that, though considerd “poor man’s food”, is enjoyed by all, including the wealthiest.

  • Excuse my rudeness – I got so carried away with my remarks that I forgot to thank you for a wonderful blog! You managed to transport me to a wonderful place! That doesn’t happen often.

  • I love the little turtle! It is a Mediterranean Spur Thighed Tortoise.
    How lucky it was that you came across it!
    And how lucky for us that you shared the photo of it with all of us!
    Thank you so much!
    Peace,
    Laurie