If you’ve eaten at any Middle Eastern restaurant or spent any time in the region you are sure to have encountered za'atar (زعتر ). I’ve probably eaten boatloads of za'atar over the years, in salads, spread on flatbreads, and sprinkled over roast chicken. To clarify, za'atar is both an herb and a dried herb mixture, the latter including sesame seeds and other spices. Of course I knew what za'atar was, I blithely assumed, until one day I saw large bunches of an unfamiliar green herb in the market in Damascus. “Za'atar taza,” said the vendor when I asked, “fresh za'atar.” I nodded confidently, as if I knew exactly what it was, but I was quickly realizing I had no idea how to define the formerly-familiar za'atar. In order to best understand the ubiquitous herb mixture, first I had to know about za'atar as a specific herb.
In Arabic, za'atar can be used to refer to many herbs in the thyme-marjorum-oregano-savory family. But the plants I saw in markets and shops had long thin leaves, nothing like the tiny leaf of thyme nor the round leaf of oregano. There is a lot of misinformation out there about za'atar, and I’ll spare you the details, other than to say it took a lot of wading through books and encyclopedias, talking to farmers, and the great help of my friend Samir, who has a masters in agriculture from University of Damascus, to get it all sorted out.
Za'atar is a specific herb, thymbra spicata, with long green leaves and thyme-like flavor. It is sometimes called wild thyme in English, and it grows along the slopes of the Syrian-Lebanese mountains and cannot be cultivated. The following herbs are often mistakenly referred to as za'atar: Syrian oregano (oreganum syricum), biblical hyssop, and thyme-leaved savory (satureja thryba), among others. Fresh za'atar is used occasionally in salads and is also pickled
A Damascene blend on the left and a Beiruti blend handmade by a friend's Lebanese grandmother on the right.Now that we have the herb za'atar defined, let’s move on to the za'atar mixture. The basic za'atar mixture consists of dried za'atar herb and sesame seeds with a bit of salt, but each version is a little different, some people add bits of oregano, savory, hyssop or sumac (a dried tart berry). In Beirut, the most prized za'atar mixture includes the delicate white thyme flowers, the result is a light colored za'atar that is rarely found in shops but made by hand at home (see above). In Damascus, the favored za'atar is verdant green in color with flecks of sesame, while in Aleppo they prefer to grind the sesame seeds which gives the mixture a more brown appearance, and in Jordan they use a large quantity of sumac for a red za'atar. In the market, you are sure to find at least five different varieties of zaatar to choose from, and people also make their own mix at home. My advice is usually to taste and try, you should be able to eat the za'atar dry with a spoon and it should not be powdery or have bits of stem in it.
Za'atar (the mixture) is considered a staple food in Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan, so essential that no table or kitchen is complete without it. Usually za'atar is mixed with olive oil (za'atar ul-zayt), and this mixture is spread on flat breads, rolled up in pita bread, served as a dip, or drizzled over sliced tomatoes. Za'atar makes the filling for croissants, the seasoning on breadsticks, a compliment to yogurt, and the seasoning for stews. Children are often given za'atar sandwiches before a test because it is thought to awaken the mind.
Za'atar in the market in Aleppo, decorated with sumac and salt. The sign below actually advertises a flower tea also available at the shop.My favorite way to eat za'atar is probably the simplest: get two small bowls, put a shallow level of olive oil in one, and put a generous amount of za'atar in the other. Now get some bread, preferably a flat bread like pita, but you can use any bread you like. Roll up your bread, or tear off a hunk, and dip the bread first in the olive oil, then in the za'atar. Eat. In fact, I dare you to stop eating, because it is so addictive. Before you know it, you’ll have made a whole meal around a dried herb mix. And that is the power of za'atar.
I always buy my za'atar from a Middle Eastern store, or order it. However, if you are stranded on a remote island and in need of some za'atar, the following mixture will suffice. Combine 1/2 cup best-quality dried thyme, 1 teaspoon summer savory or oregano, 2 tablespoons sumac, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 2 tablespoons sesame seeds. Give the mixture a quick blitz in a food processor or spice grinder (you don't actually want to grind all the seeds, just give everything a good mix).