What I Can’t Live Without: Za’atar and Haloumi Cheese

It has taken me ten months, but I’ve finally stumbled upon a market that carries Haloumi cheese. Yes. Ten. Months.

I’ve written about my slight integration into Arab culture before. It started with the language classes, deepened with friendships, and snowballed into a giant cultural chasm when I was sucked into a Lebanese dance performance and then guilted into designing publications for the Lebanese social events. Yes, I was the honorary Arab. After transferring to UCLA, my Santa Barbara Lebanese club friends would come to Los Angeles to visit every once in a while. They would lie to the members who did not know me, telling them that I was Lebanese. When I told them that their friends were playing jokes on them, they wouldn’t believe me. I’ve been condemned to forever speaking Arabic with a Lebanese accent. That’s what I get for overexposure to Lebanese people.

Even in Washington, I sat down to a dinner with an Egyptian non-profit worker. We exchanged a few words. And then she asked me what part of Lebanon I learned Arabic in. Years later, I try to integrate myself into a generic form of Arabic culture – and I find that I’m once again Lebanese. Maybe I always was Lebanese and always will be; I’ll never really know.  I guess I’m just racially ambiguous.

Anyway, two of my favorite parts of Arab food are Haloumi cheese and za’atar. Za’atar. I can’t quite explain the correct pronunciation with English letters – it uses the sexy, emphatic, back-of-the-throat “short A,” which is essentially a mix between the American short vowel “a” and long vowel “a.” Zaaa’tar.

Za’atar itself is actually an herb on its own, without any real translation into English. Some people think it is what we know as thyme or oregano, but some basic research proved its independence from both. It’s a shrub plant, similar to oregano, with little fuzzy leaves, which grows naturally in parts of Israel and throughout the Arab Levant. It’s actually illegal to pick za’atar in Israel, to avoid overharvesting the herb. The fine for picking za’atar is the equivalent to $135. Naturally, it’s difficult to find the legitimate form of the za’atar plant here in the US. So we make do. We Google za’atar, we call our Arab friends, who call their mothers and grandmothers, and we learn that every Arab grandmother has her own version of za’atar, that is most likely a family secret. But we make do. And we make our own. In this case, I made the half-Irish-half-Filipino version of a traditional Arab spice mixture. And it has no influence from the Irish side or the Filipino side, but since every family has their own version of za’atar, this is mine.

Za’atar is an amazingly versatile spice to keep in your kitchen. Toss it in a salad, dress a chicken with it, or mix it with olive oil to dip any type of bread in. It will have your guests drooling, and asking for more. More often than not, I end up sending my deprived friends home with a jar of my spice mixture.

Haloumi cheese in itself was impossible to find, until a week or so ago. I’ve been to so many specialty stores in the Washington area, and no one carried it. Until the new Safeway reopened in Georgetown. And there, the heavens broke through the clouds, shining light on my little (expensive) box of that unbelievably salty cheese that brings me back to Isla Vista brunches. This cheese — this orgasmic, heavenly cheese – can be eaten cold, or grilled. Yes, grilled. I like to slice it up, and throw it on one of my nonstick frying pans until the edges crisp into a nice, golden brown. You know it’s perfect when you bite into a slice and the outside is perfectly crisp and sizzling hot, while the inside is not as hot and soft, almost to the point of gooey. As my friend at The Spinning Plate would say: it’s “better than sex… maybe.”  But let’s be honest. There’s an end point to sex. I could literally eat Haloumi cheese nonstop, for the rest of my life. Until I died of salt intake and high cholesterol as a result of eating too much cheese.

1/2 cup ground sumac
4 tablespoons thyme
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
4 tablespoons marjoram
4 tablespoons oregano
2 tablespoons coarse sea salt

If the sesame seeds are raw and not toasted, heat a dry, non-stick pan over your stove.  Pour the seeds into the pan, and use your wrist to shake and shift them over the heat, until they are all a golden brown — you’ll know when they’re ready by the aroma.  Sesame is one of the strongest flavors out there.

Once cooled, toss the seeds into your food processor and pulse grind a couple of times, just to get some different sizes and textures in there.  Then, add the remaining ingredients and pulse grind again, until evenly mixed.

Mana’eesh bi Zaa’tar

In college, I was in Lebanese Club.  No, I’m not Lebanese–or any form of Arab, for that matter.  My undergrad concentration involved Arabic, and some mutual friends sucked me into Lebanese Club, where I was adopted as the honorary half-Filipino member amidst my new Arab friends (don’t worry, I contributed my own personal ethnic confusions to a UCLA dissertation study on people who identify with cultures other than their own).
A friend of mine in college had a parallel obsession.  He explained it well, claiming that because his white people had no culture, he simply opted to adopt another.  I’d have to agree.  I, personally, identify as half-Filipino because I look Filipino–but I was raised in white “culture.”  This involved a number of fun and borrowed traditions, alongside a number of relatively boring European ones and other miscellaneous fascinations.  A example of a fun borrowed tradition would be my family’s love of oldies music–most of those artists are black.  A boring European tradition would be eating potatoes, like our Irish ancestors, as we discuss how much it sucked that Irish people had to live off of them for so long.  Sometimes potatoes are great, but “white” culture didn’t have a thing that swept me off my feet like the beautiful Arabic script or Islamic architecture.  And, Catholic school doesn’t teach you a single thing about the Middle East, aside from the fact that the Hebrews were God’s chosen people.  So needless to say, the moment I stepped off a plane in Dubai, I was smitten.
Anyway, I’m years removed from my beloved Lebanese Club of Santa Barbara, and I still remember the way they would swoon over mana’eesh, a flat bread from Lebanon that is baked with za’atar, an Arab mixture of herbs.  I’ve always wanted to walk down a road in Beirut and buy it right off the street, exactly in the way they described — someday, I will.  But for now, I just live out my imagination by making it from scratch and testing it’s authenticity on my friends here in Washington.  I’m pretty sure they’ll continue to adopt me into the Arab world, and I will love every minute of it.

Whole Wheat Flat Bread:
1/2 tablespoon active dry yeast
2-1//4 cups warm water
1/8 teaspoon sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 cups whole wheat flour
1/2 cup ground sumac
4 tablespoons thyme
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
4 tablespoons marjoram
4 tablespoons oregano
2 tablespoons coarse sea salt
First, combine the yeast and the sugar with 1/4 cup of the warm water.  Stir until completely dissolved, and then let it sit in a large mixing bowl for about five minutes, until the solution becomes frothy.  Then stir in the remaining water.
Add in half of the flour and mix into a dough.  Then, add the salt and olive oil, begin to knead, and then knead in the rest of the flour.  The dough should be relatively soft, but it should also spring back when you poke it (kind of like memory foam).  Roll the dough into a ball, and cover in olive oil.  Place it back in the bowl, cover with saran wrap, and leave it in a warm place to rise for about two hours.
In the meantime, prepare the za’atar.  If your sesame seeds are raw, you will need to roast them — doing so releases the natural oils in the seeds that supply their strong flavor.  Heat your sesame seeds in a clean, ungreased, frying pan, on low heat, for about 5 minutes or until the seeds are golden in color.  Then, pulse-grind the sesame seeds in a food processor.  Combine the rest of the ingredients in the food processor.
Preheat the oven to 500 degrees.  When the dough has finished rising, split it into smaller pieces, and roll to about 1/4 inch in thickness.  I used a pint glass to cut round circles of dough, which I then further rolled with a rolling pin down as thin as I could get them without tearing the dough.
Mix the za’atar blend with just enough olive oil to create a thick paste.  Then spread about a tablespoon of za’atar onto the small pizza dough we’ve just rolled out.  Bake in the oven for about 4-5 minutes.  Mana’eesh is traditionally soft, so avoid letting it crisp.
Would be great with some feta — they’re like mini Levantine pizzas.  I love them.