i had a zaatar from the other Al Taïb today (the other, other, other one, that used to just be “the other one,” on Mackay & De Maisonneuve), below what used to be a Second Cup but now is perhaps a copy shop or something?), tout garni, because that is how one does, and it was delicious. it was, however, $3.25, which is a 62.5% more expensive than they were when i first moved to Montréal, but you know, even that ain’t bad. for a delicious sandwich?
once one accepts that the zaatar is no longer shockingly cheap, and makes peace with its entry into relative economic intelligibility within the culinary landscape of downtown, it should not be difficult to preserve one’s original enjoyment of the food.
although eating it today, i began to think about how it is not a perfect food. the convention when writing about a delicious and regionally specific sandwich, i am willing to claim, is to make much fuss about the perfect balance that is struck by its ingredients – the yielding but toothsome quality of the bread, the freshness of the vegetables, the resolving power of the condiment. the sandwich is a work of art.
now i love the zaatar, but i have enough emotional, biographical, cultural associations to make for its romanticization without resorting to cheapened adulation. what we call in passing the zaatar, a man’oushe spread with zaatar and rolled with vegetables (the ubiquity and variety of this food, its titles and treatment throughout the Levant prevents me from attempting to split hairs about nomenclature, but let us say that it is minimally not the same as pita), is a creature a little in excess of itself. one can top it however, add hot sauce or hummous or garlic sauce, but the basic “all dressed” zaatar is a bit of a briny, potentially overwhelming clamour of tastes. consider how four out of the eight toppings are pickled or otherwise preserved (black olives, green olives, hot peppers, pickled turnip), and that the sumac of the zaatar spice itself adds a further astringent note; that the remaining ingredients are (along with lettuce and tomato) raw onions and mint leaves (mint, man. fucking essential. it’s back.) does not make for delicate or well-integrated whole.
rather, it is bright and bold and gripping, spicy and tart and bitter all at once, with thyme, sesame, and olive oil underneath at all, but hardly serving to rein in the wilder proclivities of those assembled. and i am totally okay with this, because it is awesome. i could (and sometimes do) ask for tahineh or garlic sauce or even a falafel ball for bulk, some savoury addition to balance it out, but there is a certain paradoxical solemnity to ordering it straight up, tout garni; one of the first and wholly unnecessary of my Québecois idiom (it is, isn’t it? do the French say this? i’m going to go with No).
it is comforting, and if ever i return to Montréal after lengthy stint (or even a whole life) abroad to find all the Al Taïbs shuttered and their particular take on the zaatar vanished, it will be with a more fully realized wistfulness that i look back on the summer nights and stoop-hangs of my early twenties, the beery 3am snackspeditions (snaxpedition? snack-expidition? it sounds better than it reads).
it is imbalanced, but it is imbalanced like we are imbalanced. a little too hot, little too sour, little too bitter.
manna for the emo-crusties. everything louder than everything else. we will attack in plaid and black.
forgive my sentimentality. i have a cold.