What is Za’atar Seasoning?
A look into the history, flavor and uses of the za’atar spice blend
As a cornerstone of Middle Eastern cuisine — and one that is rapidly growing in global popularity — za’atar seasoning is one of the most versatile and unique ingredients that the Middle East has to offer. But what is za'atar seasoning, and how is it made?
What is Za’atar?
Za’atar is a spice blend composed of herbs such as thyme, oregano, marjoram or a combination of the three, along with other spices including sesame, sumac, cumin or coriander. The seasoning blend first dates back to the 12th century, making it one of the most ancient spice blends in both Levantine culture and in the world. Its origins are in Palestine, though za'atar quickly spread to other countries and eventually became ubiquitous throughout the Middle East.
As with any homemade recipe — and especially one this old — each za’atar seasoning recipe varies slightly region to region, and even family to family. However, there is one ingredient that you can count on being in every za’atar seasoning recipe worth its salt: sumac.
Sumac provides a uniquely tangy, almost citrusy flavor that gives za’atar spice its inimitable taste.
How to Use Za’atar
One of za’atar’s greatest attributes lies in its versatility — enjoy it sprinkled over any dip, like labneh, hummus or baba ganoush. You can use it in a marinade for meat or vegetables or combine it with olive oil to create a paste.
Za'atar spice is a key ingredient in man’oushe, which is pita that is topped with the za'atar-olive oil paste before baking. Man'oushe is a very popular any-time-of-day snack in the Middle East.
ICE Los Angeles Chef-Instructor Stephen Chavez is no stranger to za’atar’s wide-ranging uses and unique flavor.
“l like za’atar on bagels or crackers or like, crudite," he says. "I like to sprinkle it on vegetables. I really like it where it can almost be the main accent. Especially on bagels with a little bit of cream cheese or sumac or something like that. When you add it on there, it makes things stand out.”
The way I grew up eating za’atar — and personally my favorite way — is to fill up a small dish with olive oil and another with za’atar and to simply dunk a piece of bread in each and then eat it. It’s unbelievably simple, but completely addicting.
Recipe: Roasted Za’atar Chickpeas
Growing up, no one around me really knew what za’atar was; I never saw it outside my home. However, the za'atar spice blend that I and so many Arab-Americans grew up eating has steadily made its way over to the West. It has begun to spring up everywhere — on bagels, on croissants stuffed with labneh and even in pasta.
This uptick in popularity can be attributed to many things. Social media has undoubtedly played a role, but I think a huge part of this cultural culinary exchange is Arab and middle eastern chefs finally having the space and courage to showcase their food; chefs like Sami Tamimi, the Palestinian co-author of many best-selling cookbooks including “Ottolenghi,” “Jerusalem” and “Falastin.”
His books brought forth recipes and ingredients that were certainly not at the forefront of the culinary world for many years. However, with works like his and many others, ingredients like za’atar have begun to show up in various restaurant menus, cooking shows and fusion recipes like this za’atar fish and chips.
Za’atar’s fragrant, herby and tangy flavor profile lends itself well to many different applications. Adding it to rice, salads, roasted vegetables or any number of dishes is a great way to experience new flavors and to bring a bit of zest to your kitchen.
How to Make Za’atar
I happened to be over at a close family friend’s house recently and he told me how his mother used to make za’atar back home. In Palestine, they harvest the wild thyme that grows on the hillsides, dry it, and crush it between their hands. His family keeps their recipe extremely simple, with just thyme, sumac, toasted sesame and salt. There is so much passion and history within these simple ingredients, and that shone through brightly when he described it to me.
During my own time at ICE, one of the last modules of the curriculum was International Cuisine, including that of Northeastern Mediterranean countries. Our book did not include a standalone za’atar seasoning recipe, but I do recall one for a lamb kofte that unwittingly contained the spice blend.
Listing sumac, oregano, cumin and sesame in the ingredients, this recipe was a great example of how prevalent the flavor of za’atar is throughout Middle Eastern cuisine (even if it wasn’t specifically labeled as such). It’s also a good reminder as to why having your own premade za’atar as a pantry staple is the most convenient way to access those flavors without measuring out each individual ingredient.
Of course, you can use a store-bought za’atar spice blend too. However, the best way to experiment with your perfect blend is to make it at home, which is surprisingly simple.
Here is a standard za'atar seasoning recipe to get you started:
- 1/3 cup dried thyme or oregano
- 1/4 cup ground sumac
- 2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
- 1 teaspoon salt
Combine these ingredients and enjoy as you like. Store the za'atar seasoning in a plastic bag or tightly sealed container to it keep fresh.
As I mentioned, you can experiment with za’atar to a certain extent. This recipe is just one simple variation of the many wonderful ways you can make za’atar.