Covid and Zaatar

18 April, 2021

Orient Mills, on the right, has been providing Chef Kattan with his favorite zaatar for 20 years.

Fadi Kattan

Palestinian zaatar is made from  hyssop , sesame seeds and sumac.

My first symp­tom came upon me wak­ing up one morn­ing. I had an atro­cious­ly dry mouth and feared I was los­ing taste. Quick­ly, I put my taste buds to the test, try­ing some zaatar. For more than 20 years I have had the same deli­cious, pun­gent mix from Ori­ent Spice Mills in Beth­le­hem. That day, the taste was dis­con­cert­ing­ly unfamiliar…

Already, I had been wor­ried. Last month, after a year of cau­tion, I had let my guard down just once and end­ed up com­ing into con­tact with some­one who then test­ed pos­i­tive for Covid-19. Sure enough, this ter­ri­ble virus did not miss its chance. A few days after I had last test­ed neg­a­tive, just long enough to let me doubt what had hap­pened, it became clear I had been infected.

After my sec­ond Covid test came back pos­i­tive, I went into total iso­la­tion and the text­book symp­toms start­ed arriv­ing alarm­ing­ly, one by one. The strangest by far was when I felt my already impaired sense of taste com­plete­ly dis­ap­pear over just a few min­utes — quite as if I had been struck by some wicked, mag­i­cal curse.

In hind­sight, it was dark­ly com­i­cal. On the very same day, I received some extra vir­gin olive oil sam­ples to taste from the Olio Nuo­vo Days. I had been wait­ing for them so eager­ly. It was as if Covid-19 was telling me, take a break!

But at the time, I felt angry, dis­ap­point­ed, com­plete­ly at a loss. In mourn­ing, even. My sens­es of smell and taste were the essence of my pas­sion and job, cook­ing. My joy in life. 

Chef Fadi Kattan at his restaurant in Bethlehem.

At first, I could not accept what had hap­pened and tried to fight back. I worked through the strongest fla­vors I use in my kitchen to see if I could detect any­thing: the sharp acid­i­ty of a lemon from a tree in my gar­den, the intense, sticky, sweet­ness of dibes — grape molasses — and a fiery home-made shat­ta (chili sauce) that I hide on the top shelf of my fridge.

This was when my sen­so­ry mem­o­ry start­ed play­ing tricks on me, giv­ing me the false sense that I could still taste things. Some­times — as in the case of the shat­ta — I could still feel a burn­ing reac­tion in my throat and stomach.

While, ratio­nal­ly, I knew that I was extreme­ly lucky to have a rel­a­tive­ly mild case of Covid-19, most­ly fatigue, aches and fever, it is hard to describe how fright­en­ing it was — espe­cial­ly as a chef —to lose my taste and smell.

Inevitably, I start­ed read­ing fran­ti­cal­ly about oth­ers who had not regained their abil­i­ty to smell months after they had recov­ered from the virus. There were awful sto­ries of some who were left only able to detect a metal­lic taste sim­i­lar to blood.

My cop­ing strat­e­gy was to refo­cus on the things I could still iden­ti­fy: the tex­tures. The dif­fer­ence between a creamy labaneh and a hard nabul­si cheese, the dif­fer­ence between a lamb stew and braised lamb, the dif­fer­ence between maftoul and freekeh.

The whole expe­ri­ence for me, as for so many oth­ers, was a roller­coast­er ride. I kept think­ing I had tast­ed some­thing, brood­ing on the prospects if I did not regain the sens­es essen­tial for my work…I kept imag­in­ing the worst sce­nar­ios. On reflec­tion, I think this is the worst aspect about mild cas­es of Covid-19 — once you have passed the thresh­old of safe­ty — each “attack” on your sys­tem is sud­den and men­tal­ly challenging.

I found myself describ­ing at length to peo­ple over the phone and social media what it felt like, how dis­ori­ent­ed I was. And my slight­ly hypochon­dri­ac imag­i­na­tion would pro­pel me into those sce­nar­ios where I would nev­er regain the sense of smell and taste. What would I do? How would I ever be able to cook again? How would I be able to taste and source pro­duce? How would I be able to devel­op recipes? I could always have some­one I trust to taste the food — I already do this to make sure sea­son­ing is cor­rect, but how would I be able to re-cre­ate the tastes that are my culi­nary identity?

Reli­gious­ly, through­out this ordeal, I would still have olive oil and zaatar every morn­ing, until one morn­ing, I tast­ed some­thing. Not exact­ly the rich fla­vors of the tangy zaatar mix from Ori­ent Mills but some­thing, a touch of the spici­ness, a hint of the fra­grance. I rushed once again to gath­er a vari­ety of dif­fer­ent tastes: zaatar leaves, sumac, salty crack­ers, rose­mary, toma­toes, olive oil. All have strong dis­tinc­tive tastes but to my dis­ap­point­ment only zaatar had cut through this strange numbness!

Now a few weeks lat­er, my sit­u­a­tion has con­tin­ued to improve grad­u­al­ly. My taste and smell are almost ful­ly back but I still return to that deli­cious zaatar mix for a mea­sure — to see if I can now dis­tin­guish the dis­tinct fla­vors in the rich blend of zaatar leaves and sumac. Mean­while, I look at the beau­ti­ful, gold­en extra vir­gin olive oil sam­ples from fab­u­lous pro­duc­ers across the North­ern hemi­sphere telling them: “Very soon, my taste buds will be wor­thy of tast­ing you!” 

BethlehemcookingPalestinian cuisinezaatar

Franco-Palestinian chef and hotelier Fadi Kattan has become the voice of modern Palestinian cuisine. Hailing from a Bethlehemite family that has on the maternal side cultivated a francophone culture and on the paternal side, a British culture with passages in India, Japan and the Sudan, Fadi’s cuisine and savoir-faire combine worldly influences, a desire for perfection and a passion for the local terroir.