Za'atar | a culinary herb or family of herbs. It is also the name of a spice mixture that includes the herb along with toasted sesame seeds, dried sumac, often salt, as well as other spices.
WHEN YOU VISIT Markouk Bread in Gloucester you will find many things: Mahroussie Jabba, her friend Violette, and the large hot domed metal griddle, called a “Saj,” on which they grill markouk (Lebanese flat bread). On any given day, Markouk is filled with the earthy scent of za’atar and, typically, there’s a hearty handful of people who visit regularly because the food is just so insanely good.
As Mahroussie happily works away filling fatayer, Lebanese turnovers, with spinach, onions, tomatoes and fragrant sumac, she explains how she learned to cook in her mother’s kitchen. Helping, watching, and, of course, tasting the authentic Lebanese dishes from her village of Deir Al Ahmar. Not wishing to leave her family or her village, but wanting a better life for her children, Mahroussie left Lebanon in 1998 and came to the United States.
Markouk Bread began at the Cape Ann Farmers market where Jabba sold her food for six years. At the market, her young son ran a little lemonade stand in the space next to her. Three years ago she was able to open her doors regularly having acquired a brick and mortar space on Gloucester’s Main Street.
As you will discover, there are many wonderful dishes at Markouk, but for me the most special came in a carefully folded zaatar manoushie given to me as a gift from Mahroussie when I visited one afternoon to take photos. It was the first time I tasted her cooking so fully. It was, to me, the essence of her food. A simple combination of two wonders she has absolutely perfected: Her zaatar and her markouk. Try it. Another magnificent treat are her kibbeh balls. Traditionally filled with spiced ground beef, or in the case of Markouk delicious pumpkin as well, surrounded by a combination of bulgur, toasted pine nuts and spices and then fried until golden and crispy, they are a perfect little taste of all this is special about Lebanese cuisine. And while perhaps not as traditional, but crazily tasty, finishing your meal her banella (grilled markouk filled with Nutella and bananas) is highly recommended.
Mahroussie explains that the current menu was crafted to suit local tastes, but that her family also enjoys kishk, a fermented dairy product made with cracked wheat, which perhaps in time she will bring to Markouk’s menu for us to experience. In the nearer future, she is considering a fish kibbeh made with local haddock. Yes. Please.
If you wish to bring a little bit of Lebanese flavor to your own kitchen, you can start with zaatar, the unique spice blend used in many middle
eastern dishes. The precise blend varies from region to region it usually contains some but most of the following: roasted sumac, thyme, rosemary, sesame salt, coriander and cumin.
And while I am all for getting down with zaatar in your home kitchen, I say first things first — head to Markouk Bread to experience the essence of Lebanon, the earthy vibrancy of zaatar, the grilled perfection of markouk and the warm smile of Mahroussie Jabba.