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What Is Za’atar?
The word za’atar most commonly refers to za’atar seasoning, a middle eastern spice blend that traditionally consists of ground za’atar, sesame seeds, dried sumac, and salt—though now, recipes often substitute the difficult-to-obtain ground za’atar for similar herbs, such as domesticated thyme or oregano.
Less commonly, za’atar can refer to the za’atar herb, a kind of wild thyme native to the eastern Mediterranean. It was a popular herb for culinary use and is the namesake for za’atar seasoning. However, the za’atar herb has since been classified as a protected species, and it is now difficult to find in grocery stores or even Middle Eastern markets.
What Is the History of Za’atar Spice Blend?
Za’atar spice blend can be traced back to the twelfth century, when the Jewish philosopher Maimondes prescribed za’atar seasoning to his patients to treat many ailments.
In terms of culinary use, za’atar seasoning has been a staple of Arabic cuisine since medieval times. Za’atar recipes and za’atar blends are now common in Arabic, Palestinian, Israeli, Lebanese, Egyptian, and other Middle Eastern cultures.
How to Cook With Za’atar Spice Blend: 7 Recipe Ideas
While the za’atar herb is less widely used in the kitchen, za’atar spice seasoning is a popular condiment. Za’atar flavorful, gluten-free, and can be used in a number of ways:
- Mixed with olive oil or hummus to make a dip for breads. Traditional breads to dip in za’atar and olive oil or hummus are flatbreads like pita bread and naan, but the dips can be delicious with many other types of bread, including Italian and French bread.
- Sprinkled across bread and baked. Along with being used as a dip, za’atar mixed with olive oil can also be baked atop bread, to create a zesty appetizer or snack called manakeesh bi zaatar, which is often served alongside labneh cheese, olives, and cucumber.
- As a seasoning for meats. Za’atar is a great spice blend for any meat, from beef to seafood, but is especially popular with chicken, either oven-roasted or grilled.
- Tossed with vegetables. The strong flavor of za’atar helps spice up chopped vegetables or roasted chickpeas.
- Mixed in to salad dressing. Combined with olive oil and a dash of lemon juice, za’atar seasoning makes a great dressing for any salad greens.
- Combined with labneh. Labneh is a soft, strained yogurt cheese that is delicious mixed with za’atar seasoning. This labneh and za’atar combination is often eaten with bread for breakfast in the Middle East.
- Atop popcorn or other snacks. Za’atar seasoning doesn’t just have to be used in traditional Middle Eastern recipes—it is gaining popularity as a use-on-anything spice blend, and can be sprinkled onto anything from popcorn to pizza.
How to Make Za’atar Spice Blend at Home
Making your own za’atar spice mixture is a simple process that only requires a few ingredients.
In a small bowl, combine:
- ½ cup ground thyme (preferably ground from dried fresh thyme, but store-bought ground thyme will do)
- ¼ cup toasted sesame seeds
- ½ teaspoon sea salt
- 2 tablespoons dried sumac (if you don’t have access to dried sumac, you can use a mixture of citric acid powder and dried lemon zest)
- a pinch of black pepper (optional).
Mix well, and adjust proportions to your taste.
Za’atar seasoning blend should be stored in an airtight container in a cool, dry place. It can keep for several months.
How to Substitute Za’atar
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Ground thyme is the most common substitution for the za’atar herb, but other variations on the recipe call for equal-parts mixtures of any number of herbs: thyme, oregano, marjoram, cumin, or coriander. Many home cooks have their own preferred spice-blend base for their za’atar seasoning, so feel free to experiment and see what combination you prefer.
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