What are you going to do with that? he asked, nodding at the za'atar.
I have no idea, I told him. And I didn't.
I eat it every morning, he said, with yogurt, pita, and olive oil.
Okay, I lied. I will, too.
A few days later, I sprinkled it on vegetables and tofu.
But I'm still thinking about the old man. I want to go back and talk to him. Talk to him about where he's from. What's it like there? Why did he leave? I want to go to his house for breakfast, and bring my children.
They'll sit at his table, and be on their best behavior. We'll pass around warm pita. We'll spoon up cool yogurt. Then he'll invite me to sprinkle the za'atar in the oil and watch it disperse, like a gesture of goodwill.
My children will look at the pictures on the walls. They'll notice the veins in his hands. They'll learn that people the world over don't all eat cereal and pancakes, waffles and bacon, eggs and oatmeal for their morning meal. That the earth is big, and important, and complicated. That just because they're fortunate doesn't mean they don't have an obligation to discover and explore and experience faraway lands and people whose clothes may waft, or flow. I want them to go to a place where the internet may be slow. Where a shared meal and a warm smile and a cup of hot tea are the most important currency around.
I want my children to go to a place where they look different, if just for a while.
I want my children to eat za'atar.
Recipe for Sauteed Tofu with spring vegetables and za'atar
Za'atar is a beautiful, green-tinged spice mix popular all over the middle east. The version I found near me lists thyme, sesame, salt, sumac, cilantro, and soya oil on the label, but different versions will likely vary in their composition. I sprinkled mine in a quick lunch using what I found in the fridge, but next time I'm scattering it in olive oil and eating it for breakfast.
Makes 2 lunch-size servings
3 baby artichokes
2 tablespoons olive oil
6 spears asparagus, ends snapped off, stalks cut in 1" lengths on the diagonal
1 cup small cauliflower florets
1 cup diced firm tofu
1/4 cup vegetable stock
1 tablespoon za'atar
Squeeze 1/2 the lemon into a bowl of cool water. Pull off and discard the green outer leaves of each artichoke. When you come to the point where the leaves are tender and soft, half green and half yellow, use a sharp, heavy knife to cut off the top (green) portion and discard. Slice the stem level with the base. Quarter the artichokes lengthwise. Remove any purplish inner leaves or any bits of fuzz. Toss the artichoke halves in lemon-water.
Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the olive oil, asparagus, cauliflower, and tofu; remove the artichokes with a slotted spoon, pat dry, and add them to the skillet, too. Saute for about 5 minutes, shaking the pan occasionally. Add the stock and za'atar, and bring to a boil. Cover, lower the heat, and simmer gently until the vegetables are done to your liking. (I like mine quite al dente.) Spoon into shallow bowls, and squeeze with the remaining lemon half. Serve hot.