What is Za'atar?
Zaatar or Za'tar (zaah-tar) is an Arabic word and refers to both a Middle-Eastern herb spice mixture and also a distinct herb plant in the mint family 1. The mainstay ingredients of classic Zaatar the mix, include 1) ground Zaatar herb, also known as biblical Hyssop 2., Syrian Oregano, and the scientific name of Origanum Syriacum. Zaatar the herb plant is native to the Middle-East and is believed to be the same Hyssop herb plant in biblical references 2 and combines earthy flavors from oregano, marjoram, thyme, and savory 2) sumac powder spice (lemony but without the acidity), and 3) sesame seeds roasted (nutty, crunchy) 4) little sea salt.
Zaatar has an enduring heritage in the Levant/East Mediterranean region and is an ubiquitous staple on kitchen tables. What does good Zaatar taste like you ask? Delicious, earthy, grassy, tart, and nutty herb spice mix. It has the texture of ground (not too fine) oregano/thyme-like herbs. The texture should not be that of a fine spice powder, but more fluffy and free flowing.
A traditional and easy way to eat 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 is a versatile condiment that may season and be sprinkled on many foods, whether it’s a bagel and cream cheese, yogurts, salads, vegetable, meats, fruit, and popcorn.
Because Zaatar is an aromatic, tart, and nutty herb and spice blend, it also offers many culinary incarnations. There are a variety of vegetarian and salad Zaatar recipes that use Zaatar as a dressing, as well as recipes as a rub on certain meats for seasoning and crusts. A traditional Zaatar flat bread recipe (Manaesh or Manakish), 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!
The Zaatar name is increasingly misused in the marketplace
We believe that the name "Zaatar" is increasingly misused in the marketplace to include spice mixes that contain nothing from the original ingredients, flavor, and Middle-Eastern heritage of a Zaatar mix. These spice mixes that are misusing the Zaatar name may be fine and flavorful, but they are not Zaatar.
It is also rare to find a Zaatar mix with genuine Zaatar Herb/Syrian Oregano. To mimic the taste of genuine Zaatar herb in the mix, the relatively better brands on the market, use a combination of substitutes such as thyme, oregano, marjoram, and savory with various degrees of success. The lesser brands may only use one of the substitute herbs and use other spices and fillers that are often unknown.
Other mainstay ingredients of a classic Zaatar mix are also important including the sumac, sesame seeds, and quantity of salt. For example, lower quality Zaatar mixtures may contain citric acid (which causes heartburn) as substitute for Sumac. Depending on the origin of the sumac, the brightness and degree of the tart flavor also varies. To increase volume and achieve lower pricing in low quality Zaatar mixes, significant portions of filings like wheat and others are used, often unknown. For example, ground straw is not uncommon in zaatar claims that are cheats.
To really set the standard and raise your expectations for zaatar, we invite you to try the Tyme Foods brand, conveniently sold here or on Amazon.
Zaatar Blends do vary, but the mainstay ingredients should remain
Zaatar mix recipes in the origin Levant countries (Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Jordan) differ somewhat and may include other spices, and fillings, in addition to the ground Zaatar herb. For it to remain a Zaatar mix however, the flavor should remain modulated by the mainstay ingredient of the Zaatar herb (Syrian Oregano/Bible Hyssop), real Sumac, and roasted sesame seeds.
Some Zaatar mixture varieties may contain one or more of the following fillings and spices (some good some bad but depends on proportions used in addition to the mainstay ingredients, if any): 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.
Even if a mix claims to contain genuine Zaatar herb, it does not guarantee good flavor. Zaatar herbs (like all herbs) come in different grades and freshness. Premium grades are carefully cultivated from seeds of Zaatar herb found in the wild and contains a higher content of essential oils that drive flavor and offer Zaatar health benefits. Importantly, the processing of higher quality Zaatar herb 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 Zaatar Herb (Hyssop) Plant - Native to the Mediterranean but Flavors Differ between Sub-regions
The herb plant Zaatar is sometimes referred to as the Middle-Eastern or Syrian Oregano and sometimes translated from the Arabic to English as Wild Thyme. It is believed to be the same as the biblical hyssop. The scientific name is Origanum Syriacum (also known Majorana syriaca) which is in the Origanum genus under the Lamiaceae (mint) family plant kingdom rank1. 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. However, Origanum syriacum, or Zaatar herb, 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 primarily, followed by carvacoral drives the flavor intensity. Within the cultivation regions of the Middle-East, essential oil content of the Zaatar leaves varies widely, from few to forty grams, per kilogram.
The Harvesting and Processing of Zaatar Herb Plant - Good Qualities are Labor Intensive
The Zaatar herb plant 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. (Note. In lower quality zaatar mixes, the stalks and steams are ground are used along with other fillers) High quality Zaatar however, 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 lower labor costs.
- Missouri Botanical Garden Plant Finder
- Identification of biblical hyssop and origin of the traditional-group herbs in Mediterranean region