June 18th, 2008

On a recent bright Saturday morning at the Ferry Plaza farmers’ market, I was pleasantly surprised to find large bouquets of za’atar. Star Route Farms grows the herb and sells large bunches of it at the market.

Za’atar is more commonly known as an herby spice mix spiked with sesame seeds. The mix is named after the plant, which is dried and mixed with a variety of ingredients such as sumac, cumin and salt. Traditionally, people in the Middle East have mixed their own za’atar according to family recipes and the local palate. The dried mix is sprinkled on labneh (a sour sheep’s milk yogurt cheese) and on small round flatbreads drizzled in peppery olive oil.

Fresh za’atar is a rare treat. I’ve never seen it in bay area farmers’ markets. It was hard to find the herb even in the markets of the greater Tel Aviv area. Once you get your hands on some, you can use it fresh and dry the rest in the sun. Store it in a tightly sealed jar.

Fresh za’atar has an aroma and flavor somewhat similar to wild oregano, but different. Za’atar has a little more attitude. It’s oregano’s hot-headed cousin. Its scent is a little more heady, its taste a little more powerful. Za’atar goes very nicely with soft cheeses, especially goat and sheep cheeses, as well as hummus. It spices up a roast chicken, along with a little lemon, sea salt, pepper and olive oil. Sprinkle some on sliced heirloom tomatoes in lieu of basil, or add it to cheese kreplach. Gently fry some leaves in olive oil as a sauce for pasta, then top with chunks of cooked chicken or fish and olives with a squeeze of lemon juice. I haven’t tried it, but I suspect it would go well with lamb kebab. It might also enliven a packet of shrimp or fish en papillote.

My favorite use of za’atar—dried or fresh—is on a round of traditional flatbread, warm and redolent with toasted sesame seeds and a thick layer of za’atar mix drenched in strong olive oil.

What do you like to do with za’atar?

66 Responses to “za’atar”

  1. Dan the Gourmet Salt Guy Says:

    When living in Spain about three years ago, me and some friends used to always get kebobs late at night, after a few qualimochos (red wine and cola). Our kebob guy used to always reiterate za’atar was one of important ingredients in making his unique. Trying to understand his explanation in Spanish always alluded me. Now I know. Thanks.

  2. shelly Says:

    Glad to have helped. Man, those were the days, eh? Drinking too many qualimochos into the night and getting kebabs in Spain. I’m nostalgic for you :).

  3. Sophie Says:

    Fresh za’atar is rare in markets in Israel because – did you know? – growing wild it’s considered an endangered species, and therefore illeagle to pick.

    I love za’atar.

  4. cookiecrumb Says:

    I didn’t know ANY of this. I mean I’ve heard of (and tasted) the mix, but wow. Good lesson.

  5. shelly Says:

    cookie, dahlink! Glad to have helped :).

  6. Sean Says:

    Gosh, I wonder how many times I walked right by the herb and never even batted an eyelash. I’ll keep an eye out for it now for sure!

  7. shelly Says:

    Yes, do! Curious to read about what you do with it if you get some…

  8. Mona Says:

    I like your website
    za’atar is ” Thyme “, same .
    We grow it in south Lebanon, and also use it in baking :)

  9. Mona Says:

    I use it also in salads, top on pizza, on grilling ,,,

  10. shelly Says:

    Hi Mona! Thank you kindly! Za’atar on pizza sounds delicious. And with grilled chicken… yum.

  11. triLcat Says:

    I’m pretty sure that Zaatar is hyssop.
    Thyme is Cornit or Timin in Hebrew.

  12. shelly Says:

    Hyssop is one of many names for this herb.

    From wikipedia:

    “Latin names for the herbs called za’atar include Origanum majorana (sweet marjoram), Origanum syriacum (also known as Biblical hyssop, Syrian oregano and wild marjoram), and Thymus capitatus (thyme). Za’atar barri (“wild za’atar”) is identified as Origanum vulgare which in English can refer to European oregano, oregano, pot marjoram, wild marjoram, winter majoram, and wintersweet.”

    The term “hyssop” isn’t nearly as useful as most people wouldn’t know what it tastes like.

  13. michael edelman Says:

    My favorite is the zattar pie- two pitas grilled with tomatos, onions, sheep’s milk cheese, olive oil, and plenty of zattar.

  14. hmz_andi Says:

    is it true that za’atar is good for cleansing kidneys?

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