Ingredients: sesame seeds, sumac, coriander, cumin, lemon zest, coarse sea salt, anise seed
Za'atar, pronounced “zaa tur”, is also spelled zaatar za'tar, zahtar and zahatar, is a Middle Eastern spice blend that is used from North Africa and into Turkey. There is a bit of confusion surrounding za'atar as it has been used to identify everything from a class of herbs to a spice blend. What exactly is za'atar? It’s a wild herb, condiment, dip, spice blend and is even eaten by itself (yes it’s that good and some even call it a bit addicting). It’s an ancient cultural spice blend that serves as a unique identifying culinary badge that several nations throughout the Middle East. These nation’s all claim that their version is the truest and the best za’atar. Obviously not your typical spice blend!
Historically, cooks throughout the Fertile Crescent (this region includes western Asia, as well as the Nile Valley and Nile Delta of northeast Africa), Iraq, and the Arabian peninsula made their own variations of za'atar. Recipes for za’atar spice mixtures were often well guarded secrets and were not even passed down to daughters or shared with other close members of the family. This long standing tradition is the primary reason that it’s challenging to determine exactly which spices are used by the various Middle Eastern and North African culinary cultures in making their versions of za’atar.
While family za'atar recipes are very confidential there are regional variations that are a bit more pronounced. Israeli za'atar (integrated in the Jewish community from the surrounding Arab nations much like America’s adoption of salsa) may also include dried dill. The Jordan, version of za'atar is heavier on the sumac, so it has a reddish color and tarter flavor, while in Lebanon orange zest may be added to their versions of za'atar.
Za'atar is most frequently used as a table condiment, dusted on food on its own, or stirred into some olive oil as a dip for soft, plush flatbreads. Za'atar is sprinkled on hummus or eaten with labneh (a popular Middle Eastern cheese). Za'atar also makes a superb dry rub for roasted chicken, fish or lamb, as well as on firm or starchy vegetables like cauliflower or potatoes.
In Lebanon, za'atar is most often associated with breakfast, a cue well worth taking. Try sprinkling some on eggs, oatmeal, or yogurt. Or add some to your next batch of lemon cookies—lemon, thyme, and sesame are a trio on par with our familiar infatuation with tomato, basil, and mozzarella. Za’atar seems equally at home in both sweet and savory dishes. Many people eat za'atar, as is, right out of their hand, but be careful as it can quickly become strangely addicting. When paired with popcorn, even more so.
We also use za'atar as a savory balance to the sweetness of an oven roasted winter squash and as a secret ingredient in big hearty soups.
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