Everything You Need to Know About Za'atar, a Flavorful Middle Eastern Spice Mix
Cherished as the "king of herbs" in the Middle East, there's much to love about the flavorful spice mix za'atar. Perhaps you've heard of it or tried it in recipes like our Pan-Roasted Chicken with Za'atar, Potatoes, and Greens, Za'atar Smashed Potatoes, or Yogurt-Cucumber Dressing with Za'atar? But what, exactly, is za'atar? "It's both a fully blended herb mix and a single herb," explains Christine Sahadi Whelan, managing partner of specialty foods store Sahadi's and author of Flavors of the Sun: The Sahadi's Guide to Understanding, Buying, and Using Middle Eastern Ingredients ($25.73, amazon.com). As Sahadi Whelan notes, the herb grows wild throughout the Middle East and the mix often contains dried oregano, marjoram and/or thyme, cumin, coriander, and sesame seeds.
Sometimes the spice mix za'atar also includes the wild herb itself, which is also known as hyssop and belongs to the mint family. As you can probably gather, there's no hard-and-fast definition of za'atar, but rather a loose template of sorts that varies throughout cuisines and cultures, as well as personal taste preferences; in some recipes, you'll find that certain spices dominate while others take a backseat or are completely omitted. And just like everyone seems to have a different take on what is in za'atar (or at least which ingredients predominate), it's even spelled several ways, including za'atar, zaatar, and za'tar. However you make it or spell it, brace yourself for "herbal, tangy, savory, and nutty," flavors to hit your senses when you incorporate this spice into your cooking, shares Sahadi Whelan. "Store it within easy reach and use it as an all-purpose table seasoning. It will become an essential part of your pantry."
At Sahadi's, they use and sell a proprietary blend that they call "Bekka blend," made with za'atar, salt, toasted sesame seeds, citric acid, and sumac. "Other countries and regions of the Middle East blend their za'atar differently. In Syria, it is traditionally red due to a lot more sumac; in our Jordanian blend cumin is traditional. Like any treasured dish, every region makes it their own," says Sahadi Whelan.
How to Use Za'atar
One of Sahadi Whelan's favorite ways to use her go-to Bekka blend is homemade za'atar bread. "We mix a ton of dough daily and top with za'atar and Lebanese extra virgin olive oil and bake off like a thin pizza in the oven," she says. "It's a traditional Lebanese breakfast dish that I have eaten countless times both here and in Lebanon," she continues, adding that it's particularly delectable topped with lebany (yogurt cheese) and served with olives, cucumbers, and tomatoes.
Beyond bread, the ever-versatile spice blend can be used on roasted vegetables, on meat or fish, in salad dressings, and more. In her book, Sahadi Whelan gives 10 ways to use the "underused" spice and workhorse of an ingredient to jazz up many a savory dish. "It was the original 'everything bagel' spice, meaning you can use it everywhere," she says. "Baked potatoes, salads, eggs of all kinds, popcorn, chicken marinades, dipping oil for the table, a bloody Mary rim with Aleppo pepper, mixed into yogurt or lebany, dressings, mixed with olive oil and drizzled on hummus, sprinkled into olives with oil, tapenades, all can benefit from a sprinkle of za'atar," she adds.