A popular Israeli herb that can be traced back to the Bible.
Za’atar is the Arabic name for an herb blend that is ubiquitous in Israeli cooking. Traditionally, the blend was made from a plant by the same name, but today most za’atar blends are made from herbs like oregano, marjoram, and thyme–and don’t actually contain any of the “real” za’atar herb. This is because the za’atar plant is a protected species, and at certain times of year Israel does not allow people to harvest it, for fear it will become extinct.
This plant that Israel seeks to preserve can be traced all the way back to the Bible, where it is call eizov(often translated as hyssop, though biblical hyssop was something different from the plant that today we call hyssop). In the Bible, eizov has many uses. Probably due to its antibacterial, antifungal, and antimicrobial properties, it is part of rituals for cleansing lepers (Leviticus 14:1-6) and purifying those who have come in contact with the dead (Numbers 19:5-6). Israelites, according to the Torah (Exodus 12:22), also used eizov back as their days in Egypt, when they employed sprigs of it to sprinkle lamb’s blood on their doors to be spared the death of their firstborn sons.
Current uses of what we now call za’atar are mostly culinary, but still diverse. The seasoning mixture is comprised of dried herbs, toasted sesame seeds, ground sumac, and salt. Sumac is another Middle Eastern flavoring, characterized by its deep red berries and often sold dried and ground into a coarse powder with a tart, cranberry-like flavor. In lieu of sumac, I have seen za’atar made with citric acid powder and dried lemon zest. Lemon thyme can also add that sour accent.
For breakfast, Israelis sprinkle za’atar mixture on pita drizzled with olive oil, or stir it into the yogurt cheese known as labane. For a savory supper, the mixture can be used as a dry rub for fish or chicken, or added to marinades for grilled or roasted vegetables. Za’atar seasoning can even go festive in a party dip. Start with that labneh and za’atar combination, then add fresh garlic, feta cheese, and olive oil. Purée in a food processor, allow to chill for a few hours, and serve with pita chips and vegetable crudités. Or simply sprinkle za’atar over olive oil and dip your pitabread. Yummy and savory. Healthy too.
You can find a za’atar blend at most Middle Eastern grocery stores. Or you can join a Middle Eastern tradition by making it from scratch.
Nutrition facts per serving : serving size: 1 oz.
Cholesterol: 0 mg
Sodium: 15 mg
Total Carb: 17 g (dietary fiber 5 g, sugars 6 g)
Protein 3 g.
Vitamin A : 20 %, Calcium: 50 %, Iron 290 %
Adapted from The Foods of Israel Today, by Joan Nathan.
Makes a generous ½ cup.
Fresh thyme from your garden, farmers market, or grocery store (for extra tart flavor, or if you don’t have sumac, use lemon thyme)
¼ cup sesame seeds, lightly toasted
2 Tablespoons dried sumac, ground (available at Middle Eastern grocery stores)
1/2 teaspoon sea salt (optional)
Hang thyme or lemon thyme in small bunches in a cool, dry place or inside a paper bag, then allow to dry for two to three weeks. When the leaves are completely dry, strip them from each hardy stem. Crush to release the oils, and crumble by hand or in a spice grinder.
Combine with all the other ingredients in a small bowl. Mix well. Taste and adjust ingredient proportions to your liking. Store in a well-sealed spice jar or plastic bag in a cool, dry place. Keeps for several months.
Za’atar Pita Chips and Hummus Notes
Quick and Delicious Appetizer. Great for that last minute dish to take to a party, or when guests pop by.
4-5 large pita rounds, cut into small wedges
1-2 cloves fresh garlic, minced
1/4 cup olive oil
2 teaspoons Za’atar
Home-made or store-bought hummus, for dipping
Serves / Yields
Preheat oven to 350-400 degrees.
In a small sauce pan, warm olive oil and place fresh minced garlic in the oil to infuse for about five minutes. Place pita wedges onto a cookie/baking sheet. Add the Za’atar to oil and garlic mixture and brush onto tops of pita wedges. Place in oven for about 10-15 minutes (depending upon how crisp you like the pita).
Try Sesame Pita if your bakery has it…fab-u-lous! Serve with your favorite hummus. A little Za’atar in the hummus doesn’t hurt either. Mmmmm.