Zaatar & Labne Time! (Aka Middle Eastern Peanut Butter Jelly Time!)

“Haneen?” My friend stares at my lunch.

“Yea?” I respond between bites.

“Umm, what are you eating?” The look on her face tells me she’s both intrigued and slightly worried.

I look down at the pita bread wrap in my hands. The paper towel holding it together is soaked with virgin olive oil and the green stuff my friend is probably questioning. My mom had made me a zaatar wa zeit pita wrap. Other days, it’s a pita bread with a smooth white layer of Labne. My favorite pita bread sandwich is a mix of both, Labne sprinkled with zaatar on top and little olive oil to hold it all together.

“Oh, umm,” my young brain begins to panic. I have gotten the same questions and disgusted or worried looks about my lunches ever since kindergarten. Senior year of high school and I still struggle to answer.

“Why is it green?” Now she’s just completely worried.

“Oh, well, it’s virgin olive oil and this herb called… zaatar.” I try to explain, completely failing to remember what zaatar is called in English.

“So, you eat herb sandwiches?” She’s now more confused than ever.

“Well, herbs and spices are really important ingredients of all food in the Middle East.” She’s still staring at my sandwich. “It’s really good. I swear.”

“Okay, I’ll take your word for it.” We continue eating in silence until I finish my pita wrap and get to my cut up fruit and water.

Years later, I laugh every time I think of how I used to explain to my friends that they didn’t need to worry because I ate herbs and other cheeses for lunch every day. If you’re Middle Eastern, you’re probably laughing along with me. If you’re not, you’re still trying to decipher what on earth I could have been eating for lunch that was green and drenched in virgin olive oil.

Zaataris a mixture of ground dried thyme and toasted sesame seeds. Thyme is technically considered a culinary herb that comes from the plant called thymus. Thyme has been used since the days of Ancient Egypt. Thyme has many uses but predominately has culinary uses. Zaatar has been known to strengthen a person’s memory. Every since I was a child, my mom would make me zaatarand zeit sandwiches for breakfast on exam days. I still eat zaatar when I need to focus before a long day or work, studying, or writing.

Zeit zaytoon is olive oil, usually just referred to as zeit.
Labneis kefir cheese.

Trust me when I tell you that there’s nothing more delicious than manakeesh zaatar for breakfast or lunch! Manakeesh zaatar is basically toasted pita bread with a beautifully slathered layer of virgin olive oil and organic thyme. My family has fresh zaatar shipped by my father’s brothers from Jericho, Palestine.

I’ve learned to cook like my grandmother and mother, which means I don’t do measurements. [In reality, I can’t cook any Middle Eastern dishes to save my life, unless it’s breakfast.] To make manakeesh zaatar, you need pita bread, virgin olive oil, thyme, a small bowl, foil, and some type of oven. Simple, right? Lay the pita bread on foil. I like to mix the olive oil and a tablespoon of zaatar in a separate bowl before I pour it onto the pita bread. Place in the oven. Keep it in there until you see the edges turn crispy, giving it that slight crunch. Take it out and enjoy like a round pizza. When I’m on the run, I leave the pita bread slightly soft so I can just roll it up, wrap it with foil, and take it with me.

Personally, I love sprinkling zaatar on Labne cheese after I’ve topped the Labne with olive oil. Dipping pita bread into this mix or spreading it onto the pita bread to take with me when I’m running out of the house, with a side of olives, is the delicious breakfast or lunch.

Growing up in a Middle Eastern household, I took different and “unique” lunches to school. Despite being made fun of for not having the usual peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I loved what my mom packed for me. Peanut butter did not exist in our house. Actually, I couldn’t stand peanut butter at all. My brother was the only one in the family who liked it, so it was rare to find a jar at home.

The first peanut butter and jelly sandwich I ever ate was during my last year of college. GASP! I’m completely serious. It took me over twenty-one years to experience this American food staple.

During my fourth year at UCSD, my brother was self-training himself with P90X. A different array of healthy foods filled our house, including organic peanut butter. One time while I was running late to get back to campus I made myself a quick peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It was my first and last one until moving back home for the summer after graduation.

I remember being asked by my brother to pick up a jar of his preferred organic peanut butter one day and being shocked by the price. “Healthy food is expensive, Haneen. This is the best.” He explained to me. I knew he was right.

During my time as an MFA student, I would begin to make myself a peanut butter and banana sandwich or dip celery (a vegetable I had always stayed away from and couldn’t get myself to swallow alone) in peanut butter almost every other morning. I always drizzled honey and cinnamon on top of the peanut butter to give it a taste I loved. It was a quick and healthy breakfast to get my brain pumped for writing. I still couldn’t stand anything peanut butter flavored and I felt like I was forcing myself to swallow the PB sandwiches.

I have never been a breakfast person, but simple coffee and water was not cutting it anymore. I needed to get out of my former college breakfast phase. I needed real food and I kept getting an earful from family for not eating in the morning. It was never on purpose. I just never had an appetite in the morning.

I stopped being able to stomach food in the morning sometime in elementary school. I would start my mornings with a large glass of deliciously cold milk. [I LOVE milk, which is unfortunate for someone who needs to still learn to restrain herself from dairy because of migraines. That’s for another story.] I remember being forced to take some type of Middle Eastern biscuit or tea cookies because I always shoved the sandwich my mom would make me in my lunch bag. My mom stopped making me a sandwich for breakfast and just left me with one for lunch because I could never eat more than one a day.

So, during graduate school, my brother’s preferred expensive organic peanut butter was the best option I had. For lunch, I preferred something out of a traditional Middle Eastern breakfast. It was Labne and zaatar or just zaatar and zeit zaytoon pita bread wraps for me.

Looking back on my years in elementary school and middle school, being the only kid to take non-traditional American lunches to school was a recipe for taunting. Despite being a very shy and introverted kid, I stood up for my food choices and even shared my lunch with close friends, which they came to love. It sure wasn’t easy defending what others viewed as “weird” foods. By high school, I couldn’t care less and found sarcastic ways to respond to peers who tried to make fun of my lunch.

My food was viewed as exotic but exotic back then wasn’t always “cool” unless it was a food that everyone knew, like kabobs and hummus. Ironically, I don’t like kabob or hummus. I prefer other types of Middle Eastern salad spreads, specifically kussa bi labn – the insides of Middle Eastern squash mixed with yogurt and spices – and immtable beitinjaan – otherwise known as baba ghanoush, which is actually eggplant mixed with yogurt and spices. My mom makes everything from scratch, even the hummus, which makes everything so much more delicious!

Years later, my little sister takes her lunch to school with pride. She even takes Tupperwares full of leftovers, something I never could see myself doing. Her friends are usually jealous of her lunch options.

As for peanut butter, I have found the perfect way to enjoy this American delicacy. I make my own organic peanut butter from scratch! It’s incredibly delicious!

I would be more humble about this, but the fact that both my parents who can’t stand peanut butter, despite having tried it maybe once, love it makes it hard to be! My dad has started making a peanut butter and preserves sandwich for breakfast every morning.

I have my own “secret ingredients” recipe that I have yet to share with anyone but my sisters, who watch me every time I make it. Last week, I spent about five hours total – from start, rest, and finish – turning a little over 8 pounds of peanuts into over 7 12oz jars. I was away for the weekend and came home Monday to find that I need to make more this week.

My family now has a newfound love for peanut butter and I’m spreading the love to my family and friends. YUM!