What is za’atar?

There are many ways to use this unique Mediterranean mixture of spices, derived from a plant of the same name.
Za'atar is great on bread, good on meat, pretty much good on everything! (Photo: lonbinder/flickr)

Is it an herb or a spice? When it comes to za’atar, a popular flavor in the Mediterranean and beyond, the answer is “both.” The spice blend is named after the herb za’atar itself, just as casseroles are named after the ceramic casserole dish they’re cooked in.

You can pick up packages of za’atar at your nearest gourmet food store, at Mediterranean grocery stores online, as well as on Amazon. Many stores carry za’atar spice mix in plastic jars or cellophane bags.

The package contains a mix of dried za’atar herb, sesame seeds and sometimes ground edible sumac berry. There may be oregano, marjoram or thyme in the mix. Stored in a glass jar and in a dark place, it keeps for up to a year.

Za’atar spice mix

A pyramid of za’atar in the shuk in Jerusalem. (Photo: wordridden/flickr)

Wild za’atar is a protected species in Israel, where I live. To get it fresh, you have to pick up a young bush from a nursery and grow it yourself, or start plants from seed. Being a Mediterranean herb, za’atar likes plenty of sun and doesn’t need pampering. I have za’atar seedlings sprouting in a balcony planter right now, but I know that it will take a couple of years until they yield bushes worth harvesting. Luckily, za’atar is a commercially farmed herb nowadays, whether in plain dried form or as the spice blend.

Za’atar plant

The za’atar plant likes plenty of sun and doesn’t need pampering. (Photo: reid-bee/flickr)

I like to turn this spice blend into an oily dip served in little bowls at the table. We spread it on bread, and it’s also widely known as a topping for pita or flatbread. Either way, it’s the Mediterranean appetizer or side dish that’ll have you coming back for more.

How to use za’atar

Za’atar and bread is a classic combination. (Photo: stijnnieuwendijk/flickr)
  • Make a dip: Mix 2 tablespoons za’atar spice blend, 1 crushed medium-sized garlic clove, 2 teaspoons lemon juice and 3 tablespoons olive oil, then season with salt and black pepper. Serve with bread.
  • Try sprinkling some plain dried za’atar (not the spice blend) over your pizza, like Israelis do.
  • Next time you bake a flatbread, spread the oily dip over the dough before baking (as pictured below).
  • Season chicken for roasting with za’atar spice blend, or even better, with the dip.
  • Replace oregano with plain za’atar herb in tomato sauce.
  • Stir za’atar spice blend or plain dried herb into spreadable, soft, white cheese. Add salt to taste and serve as a dip.
  • Cut pita breads into quarters. Open the quarters to expose the soft inner sides and cut into triangles. Spread oily za’atar dip over the triangles’ soft sides and toast.

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