What is Za'atar? - EatZaatar.com

 Za'atar (zaah-tar) is an Arabic word and refers foremost to a herb spice mixture (and also a distinct herb plant in the mint family1) The mainstay ingredients of a genuine Zaatar Spice Blend includes 1) ground zaatar herb, also known as Syrian Oregano with the scientific name of Origanum Syriacum, a herb plant native to the Middle-Eastern 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. 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, and fruit.

recipes using zaatar mix EatZaatar.com

Because Zaatar is an aromatic, tart, and nutty herb and spice blend, it also has 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 Manakeesh),  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 bread manakesh zatar flat bread pita bread recipe

Genuine Zaatar Blends are Rare

There are no official standards on what may be called Zaatar, the mixture. Therefore, there are wide differences on the choices and qualities of the ingredients, and hence, differences in prices. Because of the lack of a standard, it also invites a lot of cheats with unknown ingredients in the mix and makes it important to find a credible and trustworthy brand. 

For example, it’s a rare to find a zaatar mix with genuine Zaatar Herb/Syrian Oregano/Bible Hyssop.  Most brands on the market use a combination of thyme, oregano, marjoram, savory to mimic the flavor of the Syrian Oregano, scientific name Origanum syriacum).  The quality of the other mainstay ingredients of sumac, sesame, salt is also important. 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 varies.   To increase volume and achieve lower pricing in low quality zaatar mixes, significant portions of filings like wheat and other often unknown fillers is used.

Even if a mix claims to contain genuine zaatar herb/Bible Hyssop, it does not guarantee good flavor and quality.  Zaatar herbs come in different grades.  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 this zaatar herb/Syrian Oregano/wild thyme/hyssop 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.

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.

Za'atar mixture bins middle east street market

Zaatar Blends – Variations abound, especially to make up for low proportions and grades of Syrian Oregano/Bible Hyssop/Wild thyme and also Sumac

Zaatar mix 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 Syrian Oregano/Bible Hyssop/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.

Zaatar Classic Ingredients Wild Thyme Sumac Sesame Seeds

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. We note that most Zaatar mixes on the market do no contain this Origanum Syriacum plant as an ingredient (except Tyme Food's Zaatar blend). Most brands attempt to mimic the flavor of this genuine Zaatar plant by using a combination of oregano, thyme, marjoram, and savory, with various degrees of success and qualities.

zaatar plant syrian oregano wild thyme

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. (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 lower labor costs.

 

 

References

  1. Missouri Botanical Garden Plant Finder
  2. Identification of biblical hyssop and origin of the traditional-group herbs in Mediterranean region