What is Za'atar, and is all Za'atar the same?
Zaatar (zaah-tar) is a dry vegetarian food – a mixture of ground herbs, spices, and sesame seeds. The mainstay ingredients of classic Zaatar include ground native East Mediterranean wild thyme herb (tangy, zesty), sumac powder spice (lemony, salty), and sesame seeds (nutty, crunchy). Zaatar has an ancient heritage and is an ubiquitous staple on Middle-Eastern kitchen tables. The common and easy way to enjoy Zaatar is to dip fresh bread in olive oil then dip the oil soaked bread in the Zaatar.
It quickly becomes apparent however, that Zaatar may be dipped or sprinkled on many foods that it can stick to, whether it’s bread and olive oil, pasty yogurt, hummus, moist vegetable, fruit, and salads. Because Zaatar is an aromatic, tart, and nutty herb and spice blend, it also has many culinary incarnations. There are a variety of salad and vegetarian recipes that include Zaatar as a dressing, as well as recipes as a rub on certain meats for seasoning and crusts. A traditional flat bread recipe (Mana’esh) in Middle-Eastern bakeries is spreading a pasty mix of olive oil and Zaatar on flat breads (add toppings chopped fine tomatoes and onions), and is best served piping hot out of an oven. What makes Zaatar special is its simplicity. It is non-perishable and can simply remain in a pinch dip bowl along with the olive oil on kitchen counters to be enjoyed anytime as side food, a condiment, or main meal when there's nothing else to eat!
Zaatar Qualities – Not all "Zaatar" is Zaatar
There is no official standards on what may be called Zaatar. Therefore, there are wide differences on the choices and qualities of the ingredients, and hence, differences in prices. For example, the proportion and quality of the primary wild thyme ingredient is a major flavor and nutritional factor. Wild thymes in specific sub-regions of the Mediterranean offer stronger flavors due to factors including a higher content of the herb's essential oil. Importantly, the processing of higher quality wild thyme is labor-intensive, and extensive, and employs manual techniques to wash and sift only the tender leaves of the dried plant rather than stalks, stems, and twigs. Premium grades undergo additional processing such as removing a cottony layer found on the thyme leaves, which enhances the purity and flavor. The quality of the other sumac, sesame, salt, or others is also important. For example, lower quality Zaatar mixtures may contain citric acid as substitute for Sumac.(The beauty of quality Sumac is that it offers the flavorful lemony taste without the citric qualities, like acidity that causes heartburn, for example.) To increase volume and achieve lower pricing, significant portions of filings are also added in low quality Zaatar.
Zaatar Blends – Variations abound, especially to make up for low proportions and grades of wild thyme and sumac
Zaatar recipes in the Levant countries (Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Jordan) differ by region, shop, or home, and may include a variety of herbs, spices, and fillings. This is not necessarily a quality issue, but a recipe and a flavor preference. The flavor however should generally be modulated by the main active wild thyme ingredient. However, and to the extent a mix recipe needs to make up for lower proportions or bland mainstay ingredients, higher proportions of fillings and spices are used. Some Zaatar mixture varieties may contain one or more of the following fillings and spices: ground wheat, ground peanut, ground chickpeas, ground peas, ground cumin, ground fennel, ground coriander, ground caraway, ground anise seed, ground roasted melon seed kernel, ground roasted watermelon seed kernel, ground roasted hazelnut, dried pomegranate seed, and others.
The Zaatar Plant - Native to the Mediterranean but Flavors Differ between Sub-regions
The name Zaatar actually refers to both a plant and the product mixture described above with the sumac, sesame seeds and other spices. The plant Zaatar may be referred to as the Middle-Eastern oregano but is locally knwon as wild thyme, or wild Zaatar. The scientific name is Origanum Syriacum (also known Majorana syriaca) which is in the Origanum genus under the Lamiaceae (mint) family plant kingdom rank. There are other strains under the Lamiaceae mint family such as Thymus serphyllum, native to Northern Europe, and known also as wild thyme, and Thymus vulgaris native to southern Europe and known as English thyme, as well as others. Origanum syriacum, or Zaatar, is native to the Middle East. It is a short shrub of up to 2.5 feet. It is characterized by its small white flowers and very fragrant cottony leaves. Like many herbs, flavor is determined by the oil content of the herb. With Zaatar plant leaves, a high or low content of the thymol oil drives the flavor intensity. Within the cultivation regions of the Middle-East, essential oil content of the Zaatar leaves varies widely, from few milligrams to forty, per kilogram.
The Making of Zaatar - Good Qualities are Hand-Made
Zaatar is harvested during the summer months and washed in water to clean its velvety leaves of accumulated soil dust. It is left to dry outdoors in the shade for days, after which it is packaged in bundles which are then left to rest indoors for one or two weeks until they are completely dry. Laborers then detach the leaves of the dried plants from the stems with aid of basic hand tools or by hand. After the separation process, the product is gathered and sifted first in wider sifters that removes the stalks from the leaves, and then in finer sifters which separate small twigs and larger leaves from the small leaves. (The remaining twigs and larger leaves are either discarded or ground and mixed with citric acid, coloring's and bran to increase the volume and is then used in the production of low quality Zaatar flavor mix.) Higher quality Zaatar is additionally sifted and picked by hand and may also undergo an air blower process to rid the leaves of the cottony velvety layer. Zaatar is known and native to the Middle East because the plant has grown in the wild for as long or as old as the hills there. In recent past, it also has been cultivated in farms, and may be cultivated anywhere with Mediterranean climate. However, because Zaatar making is very labor intensive, it continues to favor the Middle East region because of its low labor costs.
Suggested articles about Zaatar:
A well done story in the cultural AramcoWorld on the heritage of Zaatar with helpful technical and culinary information.