Earlier in the spring I entered the Encyclopedia of Life’s Armchair Taxonomist competition. The idea was to write a brief description for one of the entries in the EOL, which would contain the salient details about a species whilst being interesting enough to capture the imagination of someone who is not that in to science. And it has to be properly referenced, to boot.

It sounded right up my street, and so I had a go – it turned out to be a bit harder than I thought! I picked Zatar (Origanum syriacum) as my species, as for some time I have been fascinated by the zatar spice mix (there are numerous different spellings). I’ve always known that there was a herb referred to as zatar as well (in fact, there are several, it’s a good example of the problem with common names) and so I was quite excited when I finally tracked down this one as being the real deal – at least in Lebanon.

And I won! The judges chose my entry (which you can read in the EOL) as overall winner, ‘for its combination of accurate scientific information, original language, quality sources, and that “something extra” we like to call “readability”’.

My prize is a private, behind-the-scenes tour of the Smithsonian Museum, in Washington DC. I have to make my own way to Washington, which I’m working on (if I can’t make it they’ve got some whizzy way of giving me a virtual tour instead).

To celebrate, I cooked my first meal involving zatar the spice mix. This one, coming from Lebanon, includes thyme, sesame seeds, sumac, salt, coriander and fennel. It wasn’t as overwhelmingly fragrant as I had imagined, but it’s certainly an interesting mix. I need to make some flatbreads and have Manakish, but in the meantime, I give you: Zatar chicken.

Zatar chicken

2 chicken breasts
2 tbsp olive oil
1 heaped tbsp zatar seasoning


  1. Preheat the oven to 200 C, gas mark 6.

  2. Mix the oil and zatar, and then coat the chicken in the mixture. Add salt and pepper to taste.

  3. Put the chicken breasts on a foil-lined baking try and cook for 20-25 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through and the juices run clear.

It’s an adaptation of a Waitrose recipe; they served theirs with a quinoa and bean salad. I used a little cross-cultural creativity and had mine with patatas a lo pobre, and it was very nice!