When it comes to Middle Eastern cooking, the spice blend cherished and craved above all others is undoubtedly Za’atar—also spelled Zaa’tar, Zaatar, and Zatar—which is not only an ingredient, but a cultural icon in and of itself.
Though this aromatic spice blend has been around for ages, the recent surge in popularity of Mediterranean foods and flavors has sent the demand for this bold blend through the roof. And as the spice grows in popularity in mainstream culture, it’s gearing up to become the next everything bagel seasoning: sprinkled on just about everything by just about everyone to make dishes instantly ten-times tastier.
However, despite it’s recent trendiness, this blend has been a staple of Middle Eastern cuisine for centuries. In fact, the history of za’atar can be traced back to biblical times and beyond, and some estimate its origin stretches back as far Ancient Egyptian times. The word za’atar, which comes from the name of an ancient wild oregano, is referenced multiple times in the bible as “ezov,” the Hebrew origin of the word hyssop. Still today, some commercially sold Israeli packages of za’atar are labeled as “holy hyssop” as a reference to its notable religious roots.
While it’s hard to trace the precise origin of the spice blend—as some suspect, due to the secrecy that Middle-Eastern women have historically maintained when it comes to their recipes and blends (still today, family za’atar recipes are often closely kept secrets), its reputation as a health food dates back to the 13th century, at least.
Za’atar has not only earned an age-old reputation for being a “brain food” and cure-all, but has also been shown by modern medical studies to be full of antioxidants—due to the fact that sumac, oregano, and thyme are all rich in flavanoids, a powerful antioxidant force—and to work against the microorganisms that cause Salmonella and other gut-related diseases and ailments.
Just a handful of ingredients make up this ancient herb mixture: salt, ground sumac (a tangy ground berry), dried thyme and/or oregano, and toasted sesame seeds. However, the recipe is flexible across different regions and spice blenders, who will often put their own twist on it, adding ingredients like cumin, coriander, fennel, caraway seeds, and marjoram to the mix.
The most common usage of za’atar, which you’ve likely come across at your favorite hummus spot, is sprinkled atop golden, oily flatbreads—which you can easily make at home—including pita and naan. However, the tangy blend is also excellent atop any variety of crusty breads, broiled with olive oil for a healthier, but still mouthwatering, take on garlic bread.
Za’atar is also an extremely versatile spice when it comes to flavoring a variety of meats and seafood, from Za’atar and Lemon Grilled Chicken to Roasted Halibut with Tahini Sauce to Za’atar-crusted Schnitzel. If you’re more of a red meat fan, coat your steaks in this Fresh Za'atar Rub before hitting the grill or smother your ribs in a Za’atar Glaze that will totally change the way you think about BBQ.
One of the best, and easiest, pairings for the spice blend is Greek yogurt, as its tangy, fatty quality pairs perfectly with the zesty za’atar. Make this Za’atar Yogurt Dip and Vegetables for your next party and friends will be clamoring to get the recipe. In addition to yogurt, a sprinkling of za’atar works well on top of most creamy dips, like hummus and even French onion dip, and can also be used to give plain sour cream a boost in flavor. It can also be used to seriously enhance your vegetable dishes, like Za’atar Roasted Carrots with Labne or some flavorful Spiced Grilled Vegetables.
The spice mix can be found at most well-stocked grocery stores, or you can make your own with this simple recipe, which is best kept chilled in a plastic bag for 1-2 weeks—though once you get a taste, chances are you’ll work through that batch in no time.