My friend Angry Arab blogged this:
""Imagine wild thyme from Lebanon combined with sesame seeds..." From Lebanon? It shows you how little Jennifer Bain knows about Za`tar. The best Za`tar is Palestinian or Jordanian. Personally, I also like the peculiar Aleppo Za`tar."
which initiated a string of patriotic and vitriolic comments about the origin and comparative superiority of zaatar. Here's what i have to say:
There are 3 different zaatar mixes in the region: 1. Palestinian (was brought to Jordan by Palestinians and then became known as Jordanian), which contains various aromatic herbs: thyme and (i suspect also oregano) and sumac and sesame but that is also lightly seasoned with spices including probably turmeric which explains the yellow color.
2. Lebanese which only contains thyme and sumac and sesame
3. Aleppo, which is even spicier than Jordanian and contains less thyme and more spices, including and cumin. But is it ground too finely for one to be able to distinguish the ingredients.
The three mixes have their own peculiarity and are worth tasting. Most of them are made with zaatar from Lebanon, as Lebanon exports dried zaatar (often illegally) harvested from the wild to both jordan and syria (check the export data from the customs). Most of the zaatar in Lebanon comes from South Lebanon where a combination of soil type and climate contributes to enhancing its desirable characters.
Commercial zaatar of the 3 kinds is cheap and contains bran and citric acid and ground twigs of zaatar rather than leaves. Aleppo zaatar may also contain MSG to enhance the taste.
My personal favorites is either plain dried thyme or good Aleppo for eating fresh with olive oil and bread, and southern zaatar (which i make personally from my own zaatar, sumac and sesame (most sesame on the market is imported from china) for manoucheh. Note that for a good manoucheh you should bake the bread then get it out of the oven and then put the oil-zaatar mix and then place it back in the oven for a few seconds before the oil starts smoking. This is the only way you can use olive oil with zaatar and this is also how you avoid eating burnt plant residues and trans-fats with the heated oil. Of course you can also have it with soy oil (practically all soy in the world is GMO) like all commercial ovens do, or with sunflower oil, which is also imported through corporations and produced controversially, but not GMO. But it doesn't taste the same.
To capture the specificity of Lebanese zaatar mix from Jabal Amel, it is being registered as a geographic indication of origin (as with wine and cheeses in europe) under the name "Zaatar Litani"). Work is also going on to spread the cultivation of zaatar in order to preserve biodiversity in the wild. Small holder farmers in south Lebanon who are cultivating it as a complementary crop to tobacco. The income from zaatar is one of the highest of all crops as the price of the kilo of dried zaatar is around 10,000 LBP ($6.6).