Most often eaten sprinkled over flatbread drizzled with olive oil, za’atar is a Middle Eastern staple.
Beautifully nuanced with unique flavors, za’atar is popular in Lebanese, Greek, Syrian, Israeli and Palestinian cultures, among others.
The simplest of versions is a mix of thyme, savory or marjoram, sumac, sea salt and sesame seeds blended with olive oil and spread on flatbread. Of course, in the same way American dishes differ from region to region, so do versions of za’atar.
And while each version is perfect on flatbread, za’atar is also a lovely way to spice up meat, or dress up hummus or labneh to boost the flavor profile.
Because there are so many different versions, za’atar tells a certain story about each region where it is popular, and in that way has the ability to teach us a bit about different cultures while uniting them as one. Although a humble spice, za’atar is in many ways a gateway to Middle Eastern life.
“The food we love the most is the food that is the most simple,” chef Ezra Kedem of the Tel Aviv restaurant Arcadia told the National Post. “Old recipes that people forgot.”
And by bringing those recipes back but giving them a completely contemporary, upscale twist, Kedem – who trained under chef Jacques Pepin as an apprentice - is using the spices of the past to “create a new food language,” he said.
Still, it is difficult to break with tradition, and throughout the Middle East on exam day, children eat a breakfast of flatbread sprinkled with za’atar, since the spice blend is believed to boost memory.
- ½ cup thyme or savory
- ¼ cup sumac
- 2 tablespoons sesame seeds
- ½ teaspoon sea salt
Grind the savory, sumac, salt and sesame seed in a spice grinder until it reaches your desired texture. (Some like a little texture, others prefer a fine grind.)
Store in a sealed container in a cool, dry place.
To use: Mix equal parts za’atar and olive oil and serve on warm, toasted flatbread.
The Lebanese version of za’atar is a bit more complex than the traditional version, and includes more spices.
- 1 cup dried thyme or oregano
- ¼ cup dried marjoram
- 3/4 cup ground sumac
- 3/4 cup sesame seeds
- 1 teaspoon coriander
- 1/2 teaspoon ground fennel seeds
- 1/2 tablespoon ground allspice
- 1/2 tablespoon salt
Toast fennel and sesame seeds in a cast-iron skillet until fragrant. Remove from heat and allow the seeds to cool. Blend all the spices in a spice grinder or by using a mortar and pestle. Store in a cool, dry place.