Edible Silicon Valley — Spring 2014
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Tasting Jerusalem
Story By Beth Lee • Photos By Stewart Putney


Discovering Middle Eastern Cuisine One Ingredient at a Time

Call it serendipity. At a small Lebanese restaurant in downtown Palo Alto, I had a chance encounter with a flavor of another kind. My notes in my iPhone list it as "zater," my best guess at the spelling after interrogating the waiter at length about the ingredient mixed in with the olive oil.

Turns out it was za'atar – a tangy-nutty Middle Eastern spice blend and actual plant, sometimes called hyssop, that is ubiquitous in the Middle East but not commonly known (or eaten) in Silicon Valley.

From that point on, I was intrigued by Middle Eastern flavors, eager to explore the cuisine in more detail. Luckily, I had help in the form of Jerusalem: A Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi (Ten Speed Press, 2012) and from a longtime friend, Sarene Wallace, a Sunnyvale native and experienced food writer. Together we launched a virtual cooking community called Tasting Jerusalem to explore Middle Eastern cuisine through the lens of the award-winning cookbook. Not surprisingly, our group's guiding theme each month is ingredient-driven.

When we introduce a new ingredient, we offer suggestions of where to purchase it, since oftentimes a trip to the local large chain grocer may not suffice. We also include online resources for those with no local access to ethnic grocery stores. But in Silicon Valley, specialty grocers abound (see sidebar).

To get started with your own Middle Eastern ingredient discovery, here are a few specific suggestions to add to your pantry of staples.


An integral ingredient to the za'atar spice blend, ground sumac's dark red granules pack a mighty punch all on their own. Of no relation to the poison sumac we were warned about as children, this dried red berry has a surprising lemony zing and is a visually attractive and palate-pleasing addition to salads, dips, rice and many more dishes.


Depending on the region of origin, the basic ingredients of this spice blend may vary but will always include sumac, sesame seeds and dried thyme. If visiting the Middle East, the actual za'atar plant called hyssop might stand in for the thyme. Some blends include salt, oregano, marjoram or sage. This herby mixture marries beautifully with olive oil and flatbread, tomatoes, yogurt, and takes a simple roasted cauliflower from satisfying to sublime.


A tiny red berry that looks like a cross between a dried cranberry and a currant. In fact, a recipe will often suggest using cranberries, currants or tart dried cherries combined with a bit of vinegar as a substitute. Barberries are a key ingredient in the Persian dish zereshk polow (zereshk is the barberry, polow is chicken). Barberries add a colorful tangy punch to many savory dishes and are an especially zippy addition to rice and grain courses.

Rose Water

A fragrant clear liquid made from distilling strongly scented rose petals, rose water adds a floral undertone when just a smidgen is used. (Too much, it comes off like dish soap.) It is most often used for baked goods and puddings but can be a surprising addition to many savory dishes.

Pomegranate Molasses

Another ingredient that Middle Eastern cuisine employs to add tang and tartness to dishes, this time in a thick liquid form, is pomegranate molasses. Think balsamic vinegar Middle Eastern style. Perfect for salad dressings, braising liquids, stews, even desserts and drinks. Home cooks can make their own by reducing pomegranate juice, but it is readily available bottled – just look for pure pomegranate in the ingredients, with no or minimal added sugar.

Beth Lee is a San Jose–based food writer, marketing consultant, co-founder of the virtual cooking community Tasting Jerusalem and writes the food blog OMG! Yummy (OMGYummy.com).

Tasting Jerusalem is a virtual cooking community exploring the vibrant flavors and cuisine of the Middle East through the lens of Jerusalem: A Cookbook by Ottolenghi and Tamimi published by Ten Speed Press. You can follow along and cook with us by subscribing to OMGYummy.com, following the hashtag #TastingJrslm on Twitter and Instagram, liking our Facebook page, joining our Google+ Community and following our Pinterest group board.

Na'ama's Fattoush

Scant 1 cup / 200 grams Greek yogurt and 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons / 200 milliliters whole milk, or 1 2/3 cups / 400 milliliters buttermilk (replacing both yogurt and milk)
2 large stale Turkish flatbread or naan (9 ounces/ 250 grams in total)
3 large tomatoes (13 ounces / 380 grams in total), cut into 2/3-inch / 1.5-centimeter dice
3 ounces / 100 grams radishes, thinly sliced
3 Lebanese or mini cucumbers (9 ounces/250 grams in total), peeled and chopped into 2/3-inch / 1.5-centimeter dice
2 green onions, thinly sliced
1/2 ounce / 15 grams fresh mint
Scant 1 ounce / 25 grams flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon dried mint
2 cloves garlic, crushed
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 cup / 60 milliliters olive oil, plus extra to drizzle
2 tablespoons cider or white wine vinegar
3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sumac or more to taste, to garnish

If using yogurt and milk, start at least 3 hours and up to a day in advance by placing both in a bowl. Whisk well and leave in a cool place or in the fridge until bubbles form on the surface. What you get is a kind of homemade buttermilk, but less sour.

Tear the bread into bite-size pieces and place in a large mixing bowl. Add your fermented yogurt mixture or commercial buttermilk, followed by the rest of the ingredients, mix well, and leave for 10 minutes for all the flavors to combine.

Spoon the fattoush into serving bowls, drizzle with some olive oil and garnish generously with sumac.

From Jerusalem: A Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, copyright © 2012. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc. Reprinted with permission.

Where to go for Ingredients

Middle Eastern cuisine offers so many unique ingredients to explore and incorporate into our own style of cooking. The next time you are near one of our local specialty stores, stop in for a few minutes with the goal of buying at least one new item – whether it's a single ingredient from the spice aisle; baked goods and bread; or even the produce section. Ask another customer or the grocer for suggestions of what to do with it, research it online or head to a restaurant and find out how they use it in traditional dishes. Soon you'll be tasting the world right in your own home kitchen.

International Food Bazaar
2052 Curtner Ave.
San Jose

Rose International Market
(2 locations)
1060 Castro St.
Mountain View

14445 Big Basin Way

Oakmont Produce Market
19944 Homestead Rd.

Zad Grocery
4481 Stevens Creek Blvd.
Santa Clara

Setareh Market
4644 Meridian Ave.
San Jose

International Express Market
5899 Santa Teresa Blvd.
San Jose