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Spice It Up with Za’atar

June 18, 2008
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That is what happened to my daughter when she came to visit me in Israel. As a first-time visitor, we had to visit the Arab market. Walking into the spice shop was like walking into a candle shop, with an array of pleasant aromas that made you want to go home right away and start cooking. This was not a little hole in the wall like some shops, but its three walls were lined with stacks of fresh spices in small four-ounce (113-gram) containers. In the middle, was a large table of dishes filled with spice and nut mixes to flavor rice or salads. My daughter, though not a gourmet cook, loves to experiment, so five went into a bag and one was za’atar. Her favorite treat so far is toast with avocado slices, sprinkled with za’atar.

Za’atar is not a single herb, but a mixture of several, which you can make yourself. Various recipes call for sumac, thyme, roasted sesame seeds, marjoram, oregano, and salt. Others include savory, hyssop, cumin, and fennel seed. Hyssop, a biblical herb, is a traditional favorite ingredient for za’atar, but because it is a protected species in Israel, it is no longer included in Israeli blends.

It is believed to give strength and clear the mind, so some people mix it with olive oil and spread it on bread for breakfast before a particularly stressful day. One of my favorite treats from the Jewish open market is fresh pita bread (fluffy and fat, not flat and stiff like the packaged ones in grocery stores) spread with olive oil and za’atar. If you buy plain hummus, doctor it up with olive oil, garbanzo beans, and plenty of za’atar.

As I was surfing the Web about za’atar, I found lots of ways people like to use it:

  • Take fresh pizza or bread dough and roll it out to 1/4” thick; put lots of olive oil on it and completely cover it with za’atar; bake just to where the dough stays soft, not crispy. 

  • Add it to plain yogurt as a snack.

  • Sprinkle it over sauteed onion when making a rice pilaf or over cooked rice.

  • It’s great on grilled meat and added to meatballs.

  • Make your own labaneh by draining plain yogurt through a couple of layers of cheese cloth overnight. Pour olive oil on the labaneh and sprinkle liberally with za’atar for a dip.

  • Cut up potatoes, toss in olive oil, salt, pepper, za’atar, and a few sesame seeds. Roast them at 375o F. till crisp.

  • Sprinkle on scrambled eggs.

  • Dredge fish or chicken fillets in za’atar.


Because it may not be easy to find outside the Middle East, we have provided one of many recipes available on the Internet, so you can make your own.

Make your own Za’atar

1/4 c. sumac

2 T. thyme

1 T. roasted sesame seeds

2 T. marjoram

2 T. oregano

1 t. coarse salt

Grind the sesame seeds in food processor or with mortar and pestle. Add remaining ingredients and mix well. Store in a cool, dark place in a plastic zip bag or in an airtight container.

By Saad Fayed, www.about.com


Photo Credit: Photo by Will King

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