Za’atar is the Middle Eastern seasoning blend you never knew you needed! Uniquely flavorful and deliciously versatile, this blend will transform all the foods you add it to! Read below for delicious ways to use it and grab our easy-to-make za’atar recipe!
Za’atar is one of my most favorite Middle Eastern spice blends. Another top competitor is Dukkah, which is very different but equally amazing. Whether you’ve never had za’atar before or your only experience has been with store-bought blends, I urge to try your hand at making your own – there is no comparison! This fabulous seasoning blend relies on quality herbs and spices to create a truly unforgettable combination of flavors that will transform your food.
What is Za’atar?
The Arabic word Za’atar refers to both a species of herb as well as to a seasoning blend. The Za’atar seasoning blend is used throughout the Middle East but has especially powerful association with Palestine. No one recipe is alike and there are probably as many variations as there are cooks. Nevertheless, there are some central ingredients that define za’atar: Sesame seeds, thyme and sumac. The species of thyme (whether a wild species or the species native to Greece and Israel/Palenstine) varies by region. The other herbs and spices commonly included in za’atar are oregano, marjoram, coriander and cumin.
I mentioned earlier that the word za’atar also refers to a specific species of herb. There is some ambiguity as to which herb that is. Some believe it refers to Origanum Syriacum, also known as Syrian or Lebanese oregano and is also the herb that the bible refers to as hyssop. Other food historians believe it refers to a species of savory. Whichever the case, origanum syriacum is commonly used in the Middle East but is very difficult to find anywhere else. To try and replicate its unique flavor we are adding regular oregano, marjoram and savory, the combination of which imparts an excellent flavor.
The flavor of za’atar can be described as a combination of tangy, herbal, earthy, lemony, and nutty.
Two varieties of za’atar are green za’atar and red za’atar, the primary difference being the ratio of green herbs to the red sumac. I have encountered green za’atar far more often than the red variety in my travels and I also its balanced flavor more.
I first encountered za’atar years ago during my study abroad in Jerusalem. Its fragrance and flavor are vividly imprinted in my memory. All I have to do is close my eyes, open a jar of za’atar and inhale, and I’m instantly transported back to the Arab markets in Old Jerusalem.
Oh, the smells in those spice shops! Even as a 20 year old I could spend hours perusing those shops and stalls, geeking out over all the herbs and spices. Below left is a pic of me with a spice vendor in Jerusalem. Check out the large heap of green spices on the counter – that’s literally a third the size of some of the spice displays I saw in the Arab markets. Some of the elaborate pyramid-shaped spice displays were almost as tall as I was!
A common sight were tables or street carts laden with manakish, yeasted flatbread that’s spread with a paste of olive oil and za’atar and baked in the oven. It’s a classic Levantine dish and is absolutely delicious.
I would also regularly buy sesame-studded bread shaped into rings that were sold with small bowls of za’atar for dipping.
Za’atar is special spice blend to me that carries a great many memories, among the very best.
What is Sumac?
One of the defining ingredients in za’atar is sumac, something you may not already be familiar with. It’s ground from the ripe, dried red berries of the deciduous shrub Rhus coriaria. It has a distinct tangy lemon flavor, though not as sour, and is widely used in Middle Eastern cooking. Its flavor cuts through and provides a nice balance to “heavier” spices and ingredients. For example, the Turkish döner kebabs I grew up eating in Germany always came sprinkled with ground sumac over the yogurt sauce which paired beautifully with the heavily spiced meat.
While sumac has a distinct flavor of its own it also, like salt, enhances the natural flavors of the foods to which it’s added.
You can find sumac in many ethnic grocery stores in the Middle Eastern or Mediterranean sections. You can also find it online such as here on Amazon.
How to Use Za’atar
Za’atar is enjoyed with bread that is first dipped in olive oil followed by the spice blend. It is also combined with just enough olive to form a paste that is spread on dough and then baked as a seasoned flatbread known as man’ousheh or manakish. But there are many additional ways this fabulous seasoning blend can be enjoyed. Here are a few ideas:
- As a salad seasoning
- Sprinkled over slices of fresh tomatoes and cucumbers
- Sprinkled over grilled or roasted vegetables such as potatoes, eggplant and cauliflower
- As a marinade for chicken or lamb
- Sprinkled over kabobs and skewered meat or veggies
- Added to your falafel mix
- Sprinkled over fried eggs
- Added to cream cheese, goat cheese or Greek yogurt for a cracker spread or dip
- Sprinkled over hummus or baba ganoush
- On sandwiches and wraps
- Sprinkled over labneh
- Sprinkled over popcorn
- Sprinkled over baked potatoes, potato wedges, or French fries
Let’s make some homemade za’atar!
Toast the seeds and spices: Toast 2 tablespoons of the sesame seeds along with the cumin and coriander seeds in a dry skillet over medium heat until the sesame seeds turn golden and the spices are very fragrant. Be careful not to scorch them or they will turn bitter. Remove from heat and let them cool completely. Separately toast the remaining 1/2 tablespoon of sesame seeds and let them cool (reserve these to stir in at the very end).
Place the toasted seed/spice mixture in a spice grinder and coarsely grind it.
Add the herbs, sumac and salt and pulse just a couple of times to break up the herbs up into smaller pieces (i.e., do not grind into a fine powder). Alternatively, grind the ingredients using a mortar and pestle. Stir in the remaining toasted sesame seeds.
Stir the remaining toasted sesame seeds into the seasoning blend.
Transfer to an airtight jar and store in a dark, cool place where it will keep for several months.
For more homemade seasoning blends be sure to try our:
- Chili Powder
- Chinese Five Spice
- Greek Seasoning
- Seasoned Salt
- Old Bay Seasoning
- Curry Powder
- Pot Roast Seasoning
- Garam Masala
- Creole Seasoning
- Panch Phoron
- Mixed Spice
- Pumpkin Spice
Za'atar (Middle Eastern Spice Blend)
- Toast the seeds and spices: Toast 2 tablespoons of the sesame seeds along with the cumin and coriander seeds in a dry skillet over medium heat until the sesame seeds turn golden and the spices are very fragrant. Be careful not to scorch them or they will turn bitter. Remove from heat and let them cool completely. Separately toast the remaining 1/2 tablespoon of sesame seeds and let them cool (reserve these to stir in at the very end).Grind the seeds, spices and herbs: Place the toasted seed/spice mixture in a spice grinder and coarsely grind it. Add the herbs, sumac and salt and pulse just a couple of times to break up the herbs up into smaller pieces (i.e., do not grind into a fine powder). Alternatively, grind the ingredients using a mortar and pestle. Stir in the remaining toasted sesame seeds. Transfer to an airtight jar and store in a dark, cool place where it will keep for several months.