Za’atar is an aromatic Middle Eastern spice mix, made from a combination of ground herbs that varies according to regional specialities and secret family recipes. The name ‘za’atar’ can also be used to refer to various individual herbs commonly included in the mix, but is most strongly associated with the herb origanum syriacum, or Bible hyssop.
Origin and History of Za'atar
Traditionally prepared by women throughout the Fertile Crescent and the Arab Peninsula, the practice of creating za’atar mixes spread to Northern Africa, with family recipes often kept a closely guarded secret. For Middle Eastern people living abroad, preparing the za’atar mix specific to their family or village can be a way of reconnecting with their roots, and Palestinians, in particular, associate za’atar with the household. Thymbra spicata, a plant native to Palestine/Israel, has been cultivated in North America by Syrian, Palestinian, and Lebanese immigrants for use in their za'atar preparations since the 1940s.
There is evidence that some of the herbs included in za’atar preparations may have held significance to ancient civilisations too. Remains of Thymbra spicata were found in the tomb of Tutankhamen, while Bible hyssop, another typical ingredient, is mentioned frequently in the Hebrew Bible as a herb associated with purification rituals.
Ingredients for Za'atar
The exact composition of za’atar varies depending on where you go in the Middle East. Full of bold flavours and deliciously crunchy textures, it is usually made from some combination of ground dried thyme, oregano, marjoram, toasted sesame seeds, salt, and tangy red sumac. It can also contain various other ingredients like dried orange zest, dried dill, or Bible hyssop.
Because the recipe varies so much, there is no ‘correct’ za’atar blend, but there are some inferior versions to avoid. Sadly, many cheap brands use filler ingredients like wheat and flavoured ground straw or husk to add bulk to their mixes, with many also using citric acid in place of real sumac.
If you’re looking for good quality za’atar, it can be found in the spice section at health food stores or Mediterranean and Middle Eastern grocery stores. Look for mixes with a strong, fragrant smell, where the herbs are very green. Avoid anything too brown - a sign that the herbs are old - or too clumpy. Always check the ingredients, and opt for a mix with all natural ingredients and no added citric acid. As with all herbs and spices, za’atar loses its potency over time, so it’s best to buy in small batches and use it at its best.
How to use Za'atar for Cooking
Za’atar encompasses a wide range of flavours, with earthy, savoury thyme, oregano and marjoram, nutty sesame seed and tangy sumac, which makes it a wonderfully versatile seasoning. It can be used to enliven almost any dish, from a simple Greek salad, to roasted chicken.
In the Middle East, za'atar can be eaten with warm bread dipped in oil or labneh, and is baked into flatbread dough to make man’oushe, a Lebanese street food. It also works well with other Middle Eastern and Mediterranean foods, like chickpeas, feta and avocado, or sprinkled onto some hummus or grilled eggplant. It is adaptable enough to suit any cuisine, however, and also works well with roasted cauliflower, potatoes, rice, eggs and tomatoes.
Cooking brings out the flavour of za’atar, so if you’re not baking it into the dish, try bringing out the flavour by blooming it in hot oil or butter. All you need to do is heat the fat a little, then remove from the stove, add the za’atar and drizzle over your dish of choice. Because za’atar creates a pleasingly complex mix of flavours by itself, there is no need to add any other seasoning, but it can work well with garlic, lemon and chilli flakes.
Recipe to Make Za’atar at Home and Substitutes
The beauty of za’atar is that it’s meant to be adapted to your own tastes, so you can create your own blend, adding new ingredients to the mix and discovering delicious new flavour combinations. It’s a good idea to get started with a basic mix first, though - you can always add to it later.
Most za’atar mixes contain oregano, thyme, marjoram and sumac, and while not all contain sesame seeds, they add a delicious, nutty, toasty flavour, and a pleasing crunch. To make a homemade za’atar, simply mix together two tablespoons each of dried oregano, sumac and sesame seeds with one tablespoon of marjoram, one of thyme, and a teaspoon of seasalt. Warm over a medium heat to release the flavours, and you’re set.
If you don’t have any za’atar, or any of the ingredients to make your own blend, there are some alternative spice mixes you can use for a similar effect. Like za’atar, Egyptian dukkah also has many variations, but it does typically contain sesame seeds and thyme, both of which are common ingredients in its Middle Eastern counterpart. It also contains some different flavours, however, like coriander and cumin, which don’t go with everything. Italian seasoning is another good option, as most blends also contain oregano, marjoram and thyme.
Spice mixes like za’atar are one of the simplest ways to enhance the flavour of your food and take your cooking to the next level. For more ways to spice up the food on your plate, take a look at our guide to some of our favourite African and Middle Eastern spice blends.