Za’atar is a generic name for a family of related Middle Eastern herbs from the genera origanum (oregano), calamintha (basil thyme), thymus (typically thymus vulgaris, i.e., thyme), and satureja (savory).
The name za’atar alone most properly applies to Origanum syriacum. It is also the name for a condiment made from the dried herb(s), mixed with sesame seeds, dried sumac, and often salt, as well as other spices. Used in Arab cuisine, both the herb and spice mixture are popular throughout the Middle East.
Preparation and Variations of Za’atar
Za’atar is generally prepared using ground dried thyme, oregano, marjoram, or some combination thereof, mixed with toasted sesame seeds, and salt, though other spices such as sumac might also be added. Traditionally, housewives throughout the Fertile Crescent, Iraq, and the Arabian peninsula made their own variations of za’atar, which was unknown in North Africa. In Morocco, za’atar mix consumption is sometimes seen as a trait of families with Andalusian roots, such as many inhabitants of Fez. Recipes for such spice mixtures were often kept secret, and not even shared with daughters and other relatives. This general practice is cited by Western observers of Middle Eastern and North African culinary cultures as one reason for their difficulties in determining the names of the different spices used. Among Arab and Arabic-speaking Jewish families in Israel, za’atar mix is often called “doqa”, in reference to the dried za’atar leaves traditionally being “pounded” in its preparation. Some varieties may add savory, cumin, coriander or fennel seed. One distinctively Palestinian variation of za’atar includes caraway seeds, while a Lebanese variety sometimes contains sumac berries, and has a distinct dark red colour. Like Baharat (a typically Egyptian spice mix of ground cinnamon, cloves, and allspice or rosebuds) and other spice mixtures popular in the Arab world, za’atar is high in anti-oxidants. Za’atar, both the herb and the condiment, is popular in Armenia, Iran, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, the Palestinian territories, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, and Turkey.
Culinary Use of Za’atar
Za’atar is traditionally dried in the sun and mixed with salt, sesame seeds and sumac. It is commonly eaten with pita, which is dipped in olive oil and then za’atar. When the dried herb is moistened with olive oil, the spread is known as za’atar-wu-zayt or zeit ou za’atar (zeit or zayt, meaning “oil” in Arabic and “olive” in Hebrew). This mixture spread on a dough base and baked as a bread, produces manakeesh bi zaatar. In the Middle East, ka’ak (a soft sesame seed bread, known as ka’akh in Hebrew), is sold in bakeries and by street vendors with za’atar to dip into or with a za’atar filling. Za’atar is used as a seasoning for meats and vegetables or sprinkled onto hummus. It is also eaten with labneh (yoghurt drained to make a tangy, creamy cheese), and bread and olive oil for breakfast, most commonly in Jordan, Israel, Syria, and Lebanon, as well as other places in the Arab world. The Lebanese speciality shanklish, dry-cured balls of labneh, can be rolled in za’atar to form its outer coating. Fresh za’atar, the herb itself, rather than the condiment, is also used in a number of dishes. Borek is a common bread pastry that can be stuffed with various ingredients, including za’atar. A salad made of fresh za’atar leaves (Arabic: salatet al-zaatar al-akhdar) is also popular throughout the Levant. The recipe is a simple one consisting of fresh thyme, finely chopped onions, garlic, lemon juice, olive oil and salt. A traditional beverage in Oman consists of za’atar steeped in boiling water to make an herbal tea.
- ¼ cup sumac
- 2 tablespoons thyme
- 1 tablespoon roasted sesame seeds
- 2 tablespoons marjoram
- 2 tablespoons oregano
- 1 teaspoon coarse salt
- Grind the sesame seeds in food processor or with mortar and pestle. Add remaining ingredients and mix well.
- Store za'atar in a cool, dark place in a plastic zip bag or in an airtight container. When stored properly, za'atar can be used from 3-6 months.