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Why are certain spices known as universal brain foods?

Photo illustration by Anne Hart
Why is Middle Eastern za'atar called the universal brain food? See the Pos-It Science article, "Is Za'atar the newest brain food?" It's the compound carvacrol in spices such as oregano and thyme that affect serotonin and dopamine in the brain. But the latest studies have been done with the spices used to increase the memories of mice.


Check out the June 11, 2013 NPR article, by Steve Innskeep and Maria Godoy, "Za'atar: A Spice Mix With Biblical Roots And Brain Food Reputation." Or see the Q and A from NPR about the Middle Eastern spice mixture known as za’atar. The thyme and oregano in za'atar contain a compound called carvacrol that's called brain food because of how those spices affect the brain's serotonin and dopamine.


To make za'atar, just blend equal parts of sesame seeds, sumac, and oregano, thyme, or marjoram. There are some pretty good health benefits when used in moderation as a condiment to spice up your savory foods.


The NPR reports that it's the thyme and oregano in za'atar that contain a compound called carvacrol, which in mice, can affect dopamine and serotonin levels. In addition, sesame sees have health benefits also for the brain. Sesame seeds contain lipophilic antioxidants, which may help prevent age-related diseases, at least in theory as more animal studies with sesame seeds are being done. Also, sesame seed oil has been studied to help reduce the risk of hypertension, when used in cooking. Check out the article, "Sesame oil: Powerful anti-oxidant, lowers blood pressure."


People in Sacramento interested in Middle Eastern and Asian spices and foods, can visit the Middle East restaurants and food markets along Fulton Avenue in Sacramento and in other areas of the city to celebrate a day of lunching or dining Middle Eastern.


Anthropological nutrition and culinary geography


In Sacramento's Mediterranean and Middle Eastern communities, there's a lot of spicy food available along Fulton Avenue's Middle Eastern, Armenian, Georgian, Balkan, and Greek restaurant row. The spices also are eaten in Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Iran, Central Asia, Lebanon/Syria, Egypt, N. Africa, and the Caucasus Mountains.

Here are some recipes on how to make Mediterranean and Middle Eastern spice mixtures. If you want to buy Middle Eastern spices in Sacramento, try the Mediterranean Market on Fulton Avenue.


Dukkah is an Egyptian spice mixture


Serve dukkah with Middle Eastern-style flat bread that you dip in cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil. Dukkah also is sprinkled on fish, meats, rice, or other savory vegetables. To make Dukkah, just mix a cup of sesame seeds with 1/2 cup of cooked garbanzo beans/chick peas. To make it Egyptian style, roast the chickpeas/garbanzo beans. To make it Lebanese style, cook the soaked chick peas first in boiling water.


Then you add 1/4 cup of nuts. Use either lightly browned pine nuts or hazelnuts. Then you add 1/2 cup of whole coriander seeds. Add one or two tablespoons of cumin seeds, and finish off the spice with 1/4 teaspoon of black peppercorns. This is what Egyptians put on their savory foods or bread.


They also can sprinkle dukkah spices on a breakfast bowl of mashed beans over a hard boiled egg which is eaten with flat bread in the morning and over basmati rice for lunch.


To make zaatar, another Egyptian spice, also used as well all over the Levant and most of the Eastern Mediterranean areas, you can blend this spice and use it on anything savory from vegetables and grains to breads, fish, and meats. It only takes a few minutes to mix together. You can buy the sumac spice at most any of Sacramento's Middle Eastern or Mediterranean food stores.


Begin by mixing 1/4 cup of sumac (the red, crushed berry used as a spice) with two or three tablespoons of thyme. Then add one or two tablespoons of roasted or lightly browned sesame seeds that you first have ground up in a coffee grinder or dry grinder.

In Egypt and Lebanon, for example, people used a mortar and pestle to pound the sesame seeds. If you have a Vita-Mix dry grinder, then use that to grind up the sesame seeds. But an inexpensive coffee grinder also works.


Use white or black sesame seeds, ground up, as you prefer


Then add 2 tablespoons of marjoram, 2 tablespoons of oregano, and a pinch of salt, if you use salt. If not, substitute another spice such as garlic or onion powder for the salt.

After you've ground up all those za'atar spices, store in a jar with a cover in a cool, dark place. You can store dry za'atar for a few months if you keep out the air and light.


Where can you buy za'atar in Sacramento?


Try the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean groceries along Fulton Avenue. Sacramento area near Arden Way has numerous Arabic food stores, Halal groceries and meat markets, Arabic-style restaurants, and community centers. Some stores along Fulton Avenue have Arabic signs in the windows. There also are Greek restaurants across the street from the Arabic restaurants. Also Sacramento, CA is home to numerous Iraqi refugees.


And for decades, the Lebanese restaurants have enjoyed visitors from all over the world with traditional Middle Eastern food fare. For example try Malouf's Lebanese restaurant. Check out the dozens of best-rated food reviews of this restaurant. See, Maalouf's Taste of Lebanon - Sacramento, CA. Also check out the website, Edible Sacramento. And try the Global Soups class at the Sacramento Natural Foods Coop. Try the Lebanese "all in one soup."


Looking for Middle Eastern spices? Sacramento chefs shop at the Mediterranean Market. For example, visit the Mediterranean Market which offers Greek, Persian, Arabic, Turkish, and Armenian food and products. It's located at 1547 Fulton Avenue, Sacramento. The market is one of the most exciting gourmet grocery stores in Sacramento.


Za'atar or the spice, sumac?


What foods would you like to buy? According to Sacramento Magazine, top chefs in Sacramento enjoy foods from this Arabic market such as the Turkish red pepper paste, halloumi cheese, bastirma (dried beef), sumac and yogurt. The Supper Club’s Matt Woolston shops there for spices, olives and feta.


Taste test: Date Maamoul, cookies from Saudi Arabia “with selected Saudi dates.” These soft, round cookies, dense with a date filling, are buttery good. Try a 320-gram (3/4 pound) box. Brand: Alkaramah. They've been reviewed and highly recommended in the Global Groceries article in Sacramento magazine.


It’s one of the most beautiful markets around, stocked with gorgeously packaged foods that you won’t want to stash behind closed cupboard doors. Best of all, it’s a source of peace and unity for the Mediterranean-American communities of Sacramento.

It's the best gourmet grocery store for the cultured consumer Mediterranean Market. You can look a the pyramid stack of giant, bright green Turkish pickle cans. Try the olives from Jordan, Turkey, Greece or Lebanon.


You can even buy a hookah with etched crystal bases from the Czech Republic, Lebanon or other lands. If you want Halaal meats or specialty olive oils from across the Mediterranean, you'll find it there. You can also buy detailed dishware.


Mediterranean Market is excellent for educating yourself about food as you shop. The market is clean with a vibrant interior. Each food item is packaged so beautifully and on display. Try the many varieties of grape vine leaves. They come as leaves or already stuffed in a wide variety of jars or cans. If you buy the grape leaves alone, stuff them with brown rice and tomato juice for a vegan treat.


People enjoy gathering around plates of ethnic foods, even when they discuss refugee resettlement issues. And there are numerous people in Sacramento who would like to learn Arabic that are not in that ethnic group. Food stores, chefs, and restaurants bring peoples together. One example is the Arabic-American Learning Center on Fulton Avenue. As more Arabic grocery stores and restaurants blossom and thrive in Sacramento, especially along Fulton Avenue, a large-space Arabic community center is situated next to Malouf's Taste of Lebanon restaurant.


Cook like an Etruscan


Want to show kids what the ancients knew about delicately spicing bland foods? Well, here's how to cook like an ancient Etruscan--in the style of before the Etruscans left the Smyrna/Izmir/Bosphorus area for Tuscany around 1,600 BCE.


Show kids how to cook as you present them with formerly 'bland' foods now curried. One example might be savory meat or fish dishes and also egg salad with lemony sumac spice or zesty za'atar, a blend of Middle Eastern-style spices.


Eastern Mediterranean cooking


The cooking style also is Levantine, similar to Phoenecian (ancient Lebanese) in the use of some spices (liked a delicate, not hot spice mixture called zatar), but without the raisins and pine nuts added to meat and rice dishes. Instead, you might use an ancient Etruscan spin on hard boiled eggs with sumac and zatar spices.


Tired of the usual hard boiled eggs mashed with mayonnaise? Try curried egg salad in a style found since medieval times along the Silk Road from the Bosporus to the Indus. Marco Polo may have dined on this cracker spread the day after Easter Sunday with all those hard boiled eggs to consume. Here’s how to start. Begin with a dozen hard boiled eggs that are cooled and peeled.


Where do you buy sumac or za'atar? Try some of these Middle Eastern grocery stores. Or buy zatar online.


Other places to try are ethnic markets. For example, Mediterranean Market, Shan Market and Red Sea Food Market. Most larger cities have Mediterranean-style markets and Middle Eastern-style ethnic food markets. Buy zatar and sumac online at Dean & Deluca's sumac at the Shopzilla site. Or buy from My Spice Sage.


Thinly slice and dice the eggs in a bowl. Add a pinch of cumin, ¼ teaspoon of mustard, ¼ teaspoon of turmeric, ¼ teaspoon of coriander (chopped or seed), ¼ teaspoon of curry powder, ¼ teaspoon of chili powder, juice of one lemon or lime, ¼ teaspoon of apple cider vinegar, ¼ cup diced red onions, ¼ cup of diced celery, ¼ cup of diced roasted or raw red bell pepper, ¼ cup chopped Italian parsley, ¼ cup chopped cilantro, ¼ cup of chopped mint, ¼ cup shredded raw carrots, ¼ cup of tahini (sesame seed paste).


You can make your own tahini by blending hulled sesame seeds with a ¼ cup of olive oil, ¼ cup of lemon juice, and a little water in a blender to the consistency of a thin paste. Or buy the tahini (sesame seed paste) already made from your supermarket or health food store.


Mix all ingredients and sliced eggs together. Spread on Ryvita rye crackers, toast, or any type of crackers and top with shaved Parmesan cheese, a pinch of chopped cilantro or Italian parsley. You can melt the cheese under the broiler or on your stovetop in a covered frying pan greased with a bit of olive oil. Heat only until the cheese melts. Or serve this egg salad on a bed of baby spinach or arugula. Serve warm. Sprinkle with dulse.


Dulse on hard boiled eggs


An alternative way of presenting Hedef egg salad Silk Road style would be to spoon the salad over a bed of cold cooked whole grains, such as quinoa or cooked barley that has been tossed with vinegar and oil and chopped carrots, celery, red bell pepper, and parsley. Sprinkle top with sesame or sunflower seeds and dulse. Serve cold.


In winter, this salad would be served with pomegranate juice on the side. In spring, serve with a glass of chilled cherry juice. It's perfect for picnics. Instead of eggs, you can use the same ingredients for variety another time to mix with canned fish. If you're not salt-sensitive, salt to taste with mineral or sea salt, or sprinkle with pepper. If you're salt-sensitive, sprinkle with dulse and add more lemon juice or chopped red onions. For further information, see more egg salad recipes from places along the Silk road at the Tulumba site. Or see Recipe Zaar. Or Diet Recipes Blog.


Cooking with Sumac Spice for a bright red lemony taste


Sumac, a condiment and berry about the same color as bricks, is used instead of salt or mixed with thyme in many parts of the Middle East and southeast Europe. Sicilian sumac is sold in European groceries and found all over the Mediterranean. It has been eaten as a dried spice since Biblical times. Add sumac to water and you have a drink that tastes like lemonade. Zatar, sumac and thyme with added salt, is sprinkled over food sold at open vendor stands found all over Jerusalem...and Beirut, in Istanbul, and in Sicily and Greece. Grow your own Sumac shrubs and plant next to thyme.


The sumac dried berry is not the poison sumac tree leaf, of course, but instead is a berry on a shrub that has grown wild in the Middle East since Neolithic times. It's sold as a reddish dried fruit that found in many Middle Eastern and Greek groceries in the form of a brick.


Sumac is used like a spice, ground up, or the dried berry is eaten


It tastes tart, rather lemony, and is used to make food taste sour. In Biblical times, sumac decorated comfort food puddings or was smeared on flat bread and used to calm children’s upset stomachs. It's for savory foods. If you want sweet, dried red berries, try Tibetan-style goji berries.


Did you ever visit the zatar vendor outdoor stands in Jerusalem? In the Middle East, especially in Greece, Sicily, the Balkans, the Levant, and the rest of the eastern Mediterranean area, it is served in small wooden dishes and passed around to each guest the same as you’d pass around a dish of pickles in central Europe. You can buy sumac in most Middle Eastern or Mediterranean-style grocery stores.


Decorate cooked eggs, fish, or meat with sumac


Whip it into egg salad, or sprinkle it on rice instead of salt or other seasonings. See Penzey's Spices catalog. To make egg salad tart, take your usual egg salad or a dozen sliced hard boiled eggs mixed with two teaspoons of grape seed oil mayonnaise and add a tablespoon of diced onions with a teaspoon of dried sumac. According to Penzey's Spices catalog, the site suggests you season sliced onions with two teaspoons of sumac. But I like sumac sprinkled on cooked lentils and green beans and served over steamed brown rice, barley, or quinoa.


Sumac is frequently served on sliced raw vegetables such as tomatoes, onions, red bell pepper, or cucumbers topped with unsweetened Greek-style yogurt. Also you can serve this type of salad surrounded with sliced hard-boiled eggs and warm flat bread. The best type of flat bread to serve with egg salad or sliced vegetables topped with tahini or yogurt is flat or pocket bread you bake yourself using garbanzo bean flour, water, and sprouted lentils.


Since a fifth of the population of America is estimated to be salt-sensitive, using crushed, dried sumac berries instead of salt works well. I mix turmeric and sumac, about a half teaspoon of both and cook it with my lentils or sprinkle it over any cooked beans. It works well in rice also mixed with saffron or turmeric. Yellow rice with sumac tastes just tart enough to complement other foods such as baked salmon. But sumac in egg salad gives it a slight tart taste, something like apple cider vinegar.


To make Biblical egg salad, you start with your usual egg salad. To serve about four people, take a dozen shelled, cooled hard boiled eggs and slice them thin. Mix with two tablespoons of grape seed mayonnaise, or if you don’t like mayonnaise, use two tablespoons or more as needed of tahini sauce, made from crushed sesame seed paste. You buy it in most health food and grocery stores or make your own by putting hulled sesame seeds in a blender with a little olive oil, lemon juice, and water.


Biblical-style egg salad with za'atar


If you want to make egg salad in the Biblical sense, that is in a fashion that is consumed today as well as was served up two to three thousand years ago in the ancient Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East, add zatar to your egg salad. You make za'atar using sumac. To begin, blend dried, crushed sumac berries with sesame seeds, thyme, and either sea/mineral salt or cumin and turmeric (if you’re salt-sensitive).


Sumac is the main ingredient in making the spice condiment called zatar, which is eaten today all over the Middle East. You can buy zatar already mixed as well as dried sumac in most Middle Eastern groceries or order it online. It's famous all over the Levant in well, Biblical proportions.


Mix your usual egg salad with za'atar or sumac, putting about a teaspoon of za'atar in the eggs, if you’re using a dozen hard boiled eggs. To make egg salad using less eggs, just add a pinch of za'atar or sumac to your egg salad. Za'atar is sumac and thyme combined. Sumac alone gives the eggs a tart flavor. Serve cooked or soaked and sprouted garbanzos (chick peas) as a side dish next to the egg salad. It's customary to serve each side dish in small wooden or porcelain salad bowls.


Top the eggs with sumac -- the crushed red berries, and tahini (sesame seed paste)


Serve the Biblical style egg salad on flat bread made with garbanzo (chick pea) flour topped with thinly sliced tomatoes or red bell peppers and sliced cucumbers. Top with tahini sauce or Greek-style nonfat yogurt and sprinkle with chopped cilantro or Italian parsley.


You now have a pan-Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, even Biblical egg salad with zatar and sumac. Both zatar and sumac are tasty, tart condiments for egg salads as well as for most salads, sandwiches, or baked fish.


Serves four if you figure three eggs per person. If you buy sumac in a Greek grocer, it’s called Σουμ?κι, pronounced souMAKI. If you go to a Middle Eastern grocer, it’s pronounced SOO-mack and is the most popular spice all over the Levant today. For more information on cooking with sumac, see the All About Sumac site. Browse the Greek Food site. See the sumac, the shrub at the landscaping site. Want a novel set in medieval Alania? Check out my time-travel novel of the Caucasus.