What is Zaatar?

Zaatar or Za'tar (zaah-tar) is a noun in the Arabic language and refers to both a Middle-Eastern herb spice mixture and also a distinct herb plant in the mint family.  The herbal plant is referred to in English as bible hyssop or Syrian oregano, but the mixture is just called Zaatar. The mainstay ingredients of authentic Zaatar the mix, include 1) the ground Zaatar herb with the scientific name of Origanum Syriacum which 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 thyme, oregano, marjoram, and savory with a peppery finish 2) Sumac powder spice (lemony but without the acidity), and 3) sesame seeds roasted (nutty, crunchy) 4) optional pinch of sea salt.  The texture of an authentic mix should not be that of a fine spice powder, but more course, herbal, fluffy and free flowing, and somewhat nutty from freshly roasted sesame seeds.

Genuine and top-shelf quality ingredients of an authentic Zaatar mix is often difficult to procure and more expensive.  Therefore, most commercial brands use substitutes and fillers to mimic the traditional taste of Zaatar, which results in a wide range of qualities and flavor profiles.

Zaatar has an enduring heritage in the Levant/East Mediterranean region as an essential kitchen table staple because it is simple, delicious and offers many relishes.  It is a condiment that is often enjoyed as a dip with olive oil and bread, a topping on flat breads and bakery items, a seasoning and a herbal spice on many foods. (The Zaatar herbal plant, not the mix, also makes a soothing herbal tea drink that is therapeutic, according to folk medicine in the Levant region.)

The easy way to try Zaatar is the Middle Eastern traditional dip with olive oil - dunk fresh bread in quality olive oil then dunk the oil-soaked bread in the Zaatar.  Also, a popular and 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 or pizza dough and is best served piping hot out of an oven (optional toppings may include chopped fine tomatoes, onions, mint leaves), .

 recipes using zaatar mix EatZaatar.com

Because Zaatar is an aromatic, zesty, tangy, lively, and nutty herb and spice blend, it quickly becomes apparent that Zaatar is a versatile condiment that may season and be sprinkled on many foods. Examples include bagel and cream cheese, yogurts, salads, vegetable, eggs, meats, fruit, popcorn, and others.

More recently, Zaatar has experienced creative culinary incarnations in North America beyond its traditional uses in the Middle East. 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.

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 with bread and olive oil when there's nothing else to eat!
zaatar bread manakesh zatar flat bread pita bread recipe

Not all "Zaatar" is Zaatar, so to speak..

We believe that the "Zaatar" reference is increasingly misused in the marketplace to claim flavor profiles and ingredients that have no relation to the Middle-Eastern taste profile and culinary heritage of Zaatar.  On many food blogs today, we often read that there are many Zaatar recipes.  We suggest that this is misleading and would set false expectations for someone new to Zaatar.  There are recipe variations but there is only one Zaatar taste. Zaatar is foremost a taste.  The recipe differences between various classic mixes is not in kind (taste) but in degree (flavor and quality), so to speak. Zaatar has enjoyed a steadfast legacy because its formula and traditional taste has not changed over the years.  The recipe variations are introduced from added spices but the choice of mainstay ingredients remain unvaried. However, the proportions and qualities of those mainstay ingredients do vary and impacts the flavor.

In particular, the mainstay Zaatar herb ingredient is difficult to procure or too expensive. Therefore, substitutes are used and attempt to mimic the taste of the Zaatar herb ingredient.  Zaatar mixes with substitute ingredients (such as thyme, oregano, marjoram) make up the majority of Zaatar products on the market today.  Ingredients in some brands include quality substitutes that do an okay job of mimicking the zaatar taste, but most combine bottom-shelf spice substitutes with fillers like wheat or often unknown fillers (ground straw is not uncommon in cheat mixes, for example.)  The Sumac ingredient is very important also. Zaatar cheats use citric acid as substitute for genuine Sumac.  Freshly roasted sesame seeds are also important for the taste and texture.

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

While Zaatar recipes vary somewhat, the taste profile and mainstay ingredients should be recognizable

 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.

 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 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 essential 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.

 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. (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 plant processing 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

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