What is za’atar? All about it, and creative ideas for how to use it

“Spice!” says Srulovich. “Our luggage is full of spice. Za’atar, smoky paprika, coffee, eucalyptus honey, halva for the team, and baklava.”

-Itamar Srulovich, of Honey & Co, quoted in The Financial Times, June 2018

We now have four dishes on Saucy Dressings, all of which use za’atar… and I am ashamed to say that recently a reader asked me what, exactly, it was, and my response was hazy… ‘a middle-eastern spice mix’ was the best I could come up with.

Well, that’s not good enough for Saucy Dressings. So this post gives you the full low down.

How do you pronounce za’atar and what does the name mean?

Za’atar is pronounced za-ah-tar (with both ‘a’s pronounced short, as if you’ve just pricked yourself). It’s an Arabic word which can also be transcribed as zaatar, zaatar, zahatar or even Zatr.

Za’atar can refer to the herb origanum syriacum, a rather superior (more flavour, more oil) type of oregano. This herb is sometimes referred to as biblical hyssop – as it was referred to in the Torah originally as hyssop. But it is not present day hyssop – which is a completely different plant, hyssopus officinalis, there is a huge amount of confusion about this.

In some areas za’atar (generally wild) has been foraged almost to death, and some, unpopular, efforts are being made to protect it.

what is za'atar
The basis of za’atar is the herb origanum syriacum, a type of oregano. Image courtesy: Davidbena at en.wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

What is za’atar made of?

  • It is a spice mix – but from the section above you will realise that a key ingredient is sun-dried origanum syriacum
  • Other herbs which are typically added are dried thyme, dried marjoram and/or dried dill.
  • Then there’s crushed sumac (a typically Lebanese variation of za’atar, red za’atar, also includes crushed sumac berries), and often dry-fried cumin, coriander and fennel seeds. A Palestinian version of za’atar contains caraway which is a bit surprising as this is a more northern seed – see What Is The Difference Between Cumin and Caraway?
  • Toasted sesame seeds are standard, but sometimes roasted chickpeas are also included.
  • Salt is usually also added.
  • Dried orange or lemon zest
  • Some ready-made, commercially produced types of za’atar contain roasted flour
what is za'atar
Some commercially produced za’atar contains roasted flour or wheat – celiacs beware!

What does za’atar taste of?

A careful look through the ingredients above will quickly explain why chef, Itamar Srulovich, buys this precious spice mix on his excursions to the middle east. A well-balanced za’atar covers all bases. The dried herbs contribute an earthy element. The sumac… other spices, the dried lemon zest… provide something bright and tangy. The sesame seeds give nuttiness, toastiness and texture.

What can you do with za’atar/good for? Add to:

  • Tzatziki
  • Anything with chickpeas
  • As a rub for chicken (fried, grilled, or barbecued), or in a stuffing for roast chicken (a quick way to replace the lemon and herbs). Try our Exotic and Easy Za’atar Chicken.
  • In a salsa verde
  • Hummous
  • Avocado on toast
  • A tomato salad, to liven it up
  • A Greek salad
  • Add it to warm olive oil and brush onto, or use as a dip for all kinds of bread: garlic ciabatta, sourdough toast, pitta, naan, flatbreads… or Lebanese bread to make man’oushe. Or, even, try pouring it over popcorn. This za’atar-infused oil is known as zeit ou za’atar (with ‘zeit’ meaning ‘oil’ in Arabic).
  • Yoghurt, labneh, ricotta.. all kinds of cream cheese to make a dip for the types of bread mentioned above, or crudités. Infusing the oil with the za’atar produces the best results, but if you are in a hurry put the cream cheese on a small plate, make a well in the centre, add some za’atar, and pour in the olive oil.
  • Roasted vegetables; especially carrots, beetroot, cavolo nero – as in our cavolo nero pasta
  • Fried vegetables
  • Add to breadcrumbs which are using to coat fish…chicken… vegetables…
  • Add to a lemon-based vinaigrette
  • On an insalata tricolore (avocado, mozzarella, and tomato salad)
  • In Israel a stalk of the herb, za’atar, is used to stuff grilled fish, together with olive oil and lemon – so use it to stuff or brush grilled fish.
  • Roll dry-cured balls of labneh, or marinated feta in za’atar. Or pre-grilling, brush halloumi cheese with it
  • you can even add to Welsh rarebit – yes, really, follow this link for more on that
  • on scrambled eggs
  • Ottolenghi’s egg and pecorino pizza
  • it’s in Steenbergs sweet potato gratin

“You can dip bread in za’atar-flavored olive oil, and it gives the bread a deep, earthy flavor. Can you tell I’m very into bread these days?”

-Isabel Vincent, Dinner With Edward

How to make your own za’atar

A very simple recipe for za’atar which you can make yourself would be (don’t make too much, it goes stale quite quickly):

Ingredients

  • 2 tbsps dried oregano
  • 2 tbsps fresh or dried thyme
  • 2 tbsps fresh or dried marjoram
  • 4 tbsps sumac
  • 2 tbsp dry-fried sesame seeds
  • 2 tsps textured salt

Method

  1. Mix together and keep in a sterilised jar in the fridge for up to a month.

Optional things to add to make it your own variation might be:

  • A citrus zest of one kind or another
  • Any kind of dry-fried and finely chopped nuts
  • Urfa pepper flakes… or some Aleppo pepper
  • Chopped fresh herbs – whatever is to hand
  • Garlic…of course!

Guide to buying and keeping za’atar

Za’atar goes stale quite quickly, so if your jar looks a bit too familiar or dusty, smell it – if there is no smell throw it out.

Smell is also a good guide when buying. Za’atar should smell! And it should be a soft olive green, not grey, without any stale-looking clumps. Don’t buy it in large quantities because it doesn’t have a long shelf life – check it hasn’t been lurking in the shop or warehouse for too long.

We like Steenbergs, which now has a new recipe, and includes parsley.

What is a substitute for za’atar

You can make your own za’atar, as we describe above. You can put together something with its elements – a dried herb, ideally, oregano; something tangy, ideally some lemon zest; something nutty, the dry-fried sesame seeds.

Or, if you have any to hand, you could use dukkah.

What is the difference between za’atar and dukkah?

Dukkah contains the sesame seeds and other nuts (pistachios are popular) for nuttiness (and it makes it a bit crunchier than za’atar); it contains salt; and coriander and cumin seeds for a bit of tangy brightness; sometimes it has dried thyme or mint for the earthy, herby flavour.

It’s not at all the same, but as an emergency substitute it would be an interesting experiment.

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