Restaurateur Ana Sortun led a small group of us on a shopping tour today of several of Watertown's Armenian groceries. (She generously donated her time as a prize in a charity auction we had attended for one of Boston's great music ensembles.) While we were keeping warm in the back of Sevan Bakery, Ana led us through her shopping list and explained the variety of spices, vegetable, dried goods, canned goods, frozen foods, dairy, and deli that we were about to see, feel, smell and taste.
First, though, she offered us a prosaic* depiction of spices, explaining that each particular mix of spices in the world's cooking provides an arrow in the atlas in terms of the food's location and culture. She also depicts each particular mix as the "source of craving" that we might have for different types of food -- Middle Eastern, Greek, Mexican, and so on.
Then, to prove the point, we were told about and got to experience za'atar, the wonderful blend of herbs -- with distinctive varieties from Jordan, Syria, Israel, Turkey, Lebanon and elsewhere. Za'atar also refers to one of the herbs itself, a hyssop related to thyme, but with a flavor that is a cross between thyme and oregano. It is dried and blended with sesame seeds and sumac, which itself is cured with salt. The resulting flavor, notes Ana, catches you "hook, line and sinker" and is one of those things that creates cravings ever after. There was total agreement in our group after our taste test!
That being said, my favorite was muhammara, a mixture of crushed red pepper, ground walnuts, pomegranate molasses, and olive oil. Put that on your pita bread and taste it.
Did I mention that Ana has a cookbook, appropriately entitled Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean? If you are really lucky, you live in a city like Los Angeles or Boston, where there are large Armenian communities where you can readily find the ingredients.
*Eek! See comment below and offer substitutes for this word, please!!!