Why It Works
- Drying the za’atar (or substitute herbs) yourself produces the most fragrant and long-lasting blend.
- If you can’t find real za’atar, oregano mixed with some marjoram and/or thyme gives you the closest approximation to the flavor of the native plant.
- Grinding the za’atar with some of the sesame seeds releases the seed oils, moistening the dried herb, while folding more sesame seeds in whole creates a more pleasing overall texture.
Za’atar is one of the most used and loved Arab ingredients in the West, and yet it is also one of the most misunderstood. Translations abound from “thyme” to “spice blend,” and mixes include all kinds of different ingredients, some calling for a mishmash of store-bought dried herbs to simply be mixed together. While this is neither offensive nor terrible tasting, it deprives you from experiencing za’atar in its best and most original form.
What Is Za’atar?
The word “za’atar” itself refers to a specific plant, the same way marjoram or dill or parsley do. It is also the name given to the blend made with the dried leaves of this plant—very creative nomenclature, I have to admit. Za’atar belongs to the oregano family (its scientific name, unsurprisingly, is Origanum Syriacum), and is native to the Levant, particularly the Syrian, Jordanian, and Palestinian mountains. This is probably why its closest substitute here in the West, in terms of flavor, is oregano, and not thyme as so many translations of the recipe might have led you to believe.
Every spring growing up, my family would take several trips to the mountains surrounding Jerusalem and pick za’atar leaves in the wild. We would use the fresh leaves in salads and breads, then dry the rest for use throughout the year. To this day, even with dried and ready-made varieties widely available, my parents, like many others, still forage for za’atar in the wild and dry it at home. If you’re thinking, why bother making it at home when you can now buy this condiment in stores, the truth is that what you buy tastes almost nothing like this home-made version. Give it a try, and you’ll understand why many Palestinian families still choose to forage, dry, and perform this yearly ritual by hand.
At its finest, za’atar (the blend) uses only the leaves of the plant, which have been stripped off the stem and dried. These leaves are then ground with sesame seeds and then mixed with sumac, salt, and more whole sesame seeds. The texture of the ground sesame-herb mixture should be powdery, but it will not be dry because of the oils released from the ground seeds. The whole sesame seeds added in at the end are there as much for flavor as for texture, giving the blend the most satisfying delicate crunch.
Making Your Own Za’atar
Fresh za’atar is difficult to find in the US, but its relatives like oregano and marjoram, and even thyme, are bountiful. Yes, you can purchase dried oregano, thyme, and marjoram in grocery stores, but I highly recommend you buy your own fresh leaves and dry them yourself, as the dried ones sold in stores can be cut with other herbs, can include stems, and are probably not as fresh as they should be, which is not ideal for making truly fine za’atar. (While I haven’t had much luck finding dried za’atar leaves on their own in the US, one can find the premade za’atar mix here from companies like Burlap & Barrel, Maureen Abood Market, Milk Street, and Syndyanna, all good options for those who want to try za’atar made from real za’atar leaves.)
Sumac is another important component of the blend, and since the recipe calls for store-bought sumac, make sure you use a pure version without salt. If you are unable to find it, simply omit the salt in this recipe.
All the Ways to Eat Za’atar
There is hardly a Palestinian kitchen table anywhere in the world that does not have a small bowl of za’atar sitting next to one of olive oil. The most common breakfast food is a piece of bread dipped in olive oil then za’atar. It is also perfect sprinkled over fried eggs or swirled into yogurt or labaneh. You can also mix it with olive oil and use it as a topping for manaqeesh (a flatbread), add it to meat and chicken marinades, or blend it into doughs. Since moving to the United Statesabroad, I have come up with less traditional uses for it, mixing it into salad dressings or breadcrumb coatings and even sprinkling it on mashed potatoes and roast vegetables. My soft spot, though, remains the most basic: a fresh piece of taboon bread dipped in olive oil and za’atar.