Organic za’atar is a generic name for a family of related Middle Eastern herbs from the genera Origanum (oregano), Calamintha (basil thyme), Thymus (typically Thymus vulgaris, i.e., thyme), and Satureja (savory). The name za’atar alone most properly applies to Origanum syriacum, considered by many to be the hyssop of the Bible. It is also the name for a condiment made from the dried herb(s), mixed with sesame seeds, dried sumac, and often salt, as well as other spices. Used in Arab cuisine, both the herb and spice mixture are popular throughout the Middle East.
Written history lacks an early definitive reference to za’atar as a spice mixture, though unidentified terms in the Yale Babylonian Collection may be references to spice blends. According to Ignace J. Gelb, an Akkadian language word that can be read sarsar may refer to a spice plant. This word could be attested in the Syriac satre, and Arabic za’atar (or sa’tar), possibly the source of Latin Satureia. Satureia (Satureja) is a common name for Satureja thymbra, a species of savorywhose other common and ethnic names include, “Persian za’atar”, “za’atar rumi” (Roman hyssop), and “za’atar franji” (European hyssop).
Thymus capitatus (also called Satureja capitata) is a species of wild thyme found throughout the hills of the Levant and Mediterranean Middle East. Thyme is said to be a plant “powerfully associated with Palestine”, and the spice mixture za’atar is common fare there. Thymbra spicata, a plant native to Greece and to Israel has been cultivated in North America by Syrian, Palestinian, and Lebanese immigrants for use in their za’atar preparations since the 1940s.
Another species identified as “wild za’atar” (Arabic:za’atar barri) is Origanum vulgare, commonly known as European oregano, oregano, pot marjoram, wild marjoram, winter marjoram, or wintersweet. This species is also extremely common in Jordan, Israel and Palestine, and is used by Palestinians to make one local variety of the spice mixture.
Other Latin names for the herbs called za’atar in Arabic include Origanum syriacum (also known as Bible hyssop, Arabic oregano and wild marjoram) and Origanum majorana (sweet marjoram). Both oregano and marjoram are closely related Mediterranean plants of the Lamiaceae family, so it is unsurprising that they could be used interchangeably.
Preparation as a condiment, and variations
Za’atar as a prepared condiment is generally made with ground dried thyme, oregano, marjoram, or some combination thereof, mixed with toasted sesame seeds, and salt, though other spices such as sumac might also be added. Some commercial varieties also include roasted flour. Traditionally, housewives throughout the Fertile Crescent, Iraq, and the Arabian peninsula made their own variations of za’atar, which was unknown in North Africa. In Morocco, za’atar mix consumption is sometimes seen as a trait of families with Andalusian roots, such as many inhabitants of Fez. Recipes for such spice mixtures were often kept secret, and not even shared with daughters and other relatives. This general practice is cited by Western observers of Middle Eastern and North African culinary cultures as one reason for their difficulties in determining the names of the different spices used.
Some varieties may add savory, cumin, coriander or fennel seed. One distinctively Palestinian variation of za’atar includes caraway seeds, while a Lebanese variety sometimes contains sumacberries, and has a distinct dark red color. Like baharat (a typically Egyptian spice mix of ground cinnamon, cloves, and allspice or rosebuds) and other spice mixtures popular in the Arab world, za’atar is high in anti-oxidants.
Za’atar, both the herb and the condiment, is popular in Algeria, Armenia, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, and Turkey.
Za’atar is traditionally dried in the sun and mixed with salt, sesame seeds and sumac. It is commonly eaten with pita, which is dipped in olive oil and then za’atar. When the dried herb is moistened with olive oil, the spread is known as za’atar-wu-zayt or zeit ou za’atar (zeit or zayt, meaning “oil” in Arabic and “olive” in Hebrew).This mixture spread on a dough base and baked as a bread, produces manakeesh bi zaatar. In the Middle East, ka’ak (a soft sesame seed bread, known as ka’akh in Hebrew), is sold in bakeries and by street vendors with za’atar to dip into or with a za’atar filling.
Za’atar is used as a seasoning for meats and vegetables or sprinkled onto hummus. It is also eaten with labneh (yogurt drained to make a tangy, creamy cheese), and bread and olive oil for breakfast, most commonly in Jordan, Palestine, Israel, Syria, and Lebanon, as well as other places in the Arab world. The Lebanese specialty shanklish, dry-cured balls of labneh, can be rolled in za’atar to form its outer coating.
The fresh za’atar herb is used in a number of dishes. Borek is a common bread pastry that can be stuffed with various ingredients, including za’atar. A salad made of fresh za’atar leaves (Arabic: salatet al-zaatar al-akhdar) is also popular throughout the Levant. The recipe is simple, consisting of fresh thyme, finely chopped onions, garlic, lemon juice, olive oil and salt.
A traditional beverage in Oman is za’atar steeped in boiling water to make an herbal tea.