What Is Za'atar? Here's Everything to Know about This Delicious Middle Eastern Spice Blend
Za'atar adds a delicious lemony, herbaceous tone to many dishes in Lebanese and other Middle Eastern cuisines—here's how to use it.
When I tell people that one of my favorite cooking spices to add to my food is za'atar, I usually get a blank stare or a look of confusion. As a Lebanese American food writer, this is a source of constant vexation: that a traditional spice blend of such depth, which has been around since before written history, might be unknown to the general West. When I speak to another person from the Middle East, za'atar is nearly equal to salt or pepper!
What exactly is za'atar seasoning, though? Za'atar is a blend of dried toasted thyme, marjoram, oregano, sesame seeds and sumac (sumac used for spices is a different species than the plant with poisonous white berries). This wonderfully roasted spice blend originated in the Middle East. Traditionally this spice blend is made without salt (yay for those eating low-sodium!). However, some brands and stores carry a version of za'atar with salt. Cuisines that commonly include za'atar in their foods are those of Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Israel.
If za'atar could get some much-deserved publicity, it would likely be the next trending food ingredient. It's a superb and well-rounded blend that can be a wonderful addition to your next recipe for avocado toast or roasted chicken.
Za'atar is healthy and full of antioxidants from the herbs, and it is very versatile. It has been popular in parts of the world for centuries, even dating back to biblical times. The beauty of za'atar is its simplicity and adaptability. Since it is roasted, its taste is naturally earthy. But it also brings a lemony brightness to the foods it is paired with. Its flavor is subtle yet aromatic, rich but not overpowering, deep yet slightly tangy.
Now on to its versatility. Probably the most classic and well-known use of za'atar is on za'atar bread (or manakish). Manakish is a Middle Eastern flatbread, topped with a mixture of za'atar, olive oil and lemon juice, that is baked in a high-heat oven (or pizza oven).
In Lebanon, za'atar bread is a popular street food and is commonly eaten for breakfast. Za'atar bread can be served with hummus or just topped with fresh tomatoes, yogurt and mint leaves. A melty cheese like mozzarella can also be added to the za'atar bread, making it almost like a Middle Eastern pizza.
Za'atar can also be sprinkled on poached or fried eggs, or on shakshuka, enhancing the overall breakfast experience. Another great (and simple) use is to season chicken with za'atar, roast or grill it and serve it over rice. And oven-roasted potatoes pair well with a generous sprinkling of za'atar and olive oil.
One can venture out and season french fries with za'atar, as well as roasted veggies or even bagels. It would not be out of line at all to sprinkle za'atar on top of some creamy hummus, just to keep it in the same quadrant of the world.
You can find za'atar at well-stocked grocery stores, Middle Eastern markets and online. One great source is Kalustyan's, which sells Syrian, Lebanese, Israeli and Jordanian varieties of the spice blend.
There really is no limit to the uses for za'atar, besides the limits of trying something new. It's time to shine a light on the sheer genius of za'atar and make it trend to a place of popularity and acceptance, right where it belongs.