Ever since I was a little girl, lazy Saturday and Sunday mornings have always included a morning spread of Izha and Za'atar with pitta bread.
Izha is a thick black paste (it looks a bit like molten tar or oil) of nigella seeds roasted and ground with sesame seed puree, or something else which makes it more liquid. There are very few places I know of in the world where you can buy it - Palestine or Jordan. Even many locals don't know about it, and I have often had confused looks when I ask friends to bring me back a jar when they go back home to Palestine...one friend once brought me back a big bag of nigella seeds!
Izha needs to be prepared before serving, as straight from the jar it can taste very bitter. Although that doesn't stop my dad from eating a teaspoon of raw izha every day. Apparently there are many health benefits to izha, including strengthening the immune system.
The best way to prepare izha is:
- Pour a small amount into a bowl (1 - 3 tablespoons depending on the number of people). Add a small amount of boiling water to the mixture and stir in, until the izha absorbs all the water and thickens to look like grey cement.
- Add more water little by little to the mixture, all the while stirring until it reaches the consistency of thick custard. The biggest mistake is to add too much water which makes the izha too runny to eat as a dip. If this happens, you will need to add a little more izha to the mixture to thicken it up - it's a judging game and takes practice if you don't get it right the first time.
- To sweeten, add a teaspoon or two of clear honey. This also makes the izha beautifully glossy and black. Sugar is fine as an alternative if you don't have honey to hand, but make sure this is added before the hot water, as it won't dissolve after and will make the izha grainy.
Za'atar is a blend of dried herbs (including thyme), toasted sesame seeds and salt. It can be eaten by dipping bread in olive oil and then the herb mixture, or mixed with olive oil and spread on dough for baking in the oven ( a form of mana'eesh). It can also be used to season meat, hommus or yoghurt.
Za'atar has become quite trendy recently, and is now commonly sold at places like Waitrose. I would NOT recommend buying it from supermarkets as they sell you a measly amount at a rip-off price. Go to a Middle Eastern shop like Green Valley off Edgware Road instead.
I love Izha and Za'atar. We even named my two late cats growing up after these two amazing dips!