If you’re familiar with Arabic cuisine or have visited an Arabic restaurant in Sydney before, then it’s likely that you know about the popular, versatile and delicious spice blend – za’atar. In Sydney, we’re lucky that za’atar is not only widely available in the many Lebanese and Middle Eastern restaurants across our city, but that it is also available at most grocery stores. Za’atar is intricately woven into Lebanese and Middle Eastern culture. For anyone interested in replicating some of Zahli’s flavours at home, za’atar is an absolute must-have.
What is za’atar?
Though many people can recognise za’atar, they often aren’t sure exactly what spices and herbs make up the blend. Like many things that have travelled through different cultures throughout the years, there are slight variations in za’atar that can be found across several cuisines.
The main ingredients of za’atar include dried and ground thyme, oregano and marjoram, and toasted sesame seeds. In Lebanon, dried and ground sumac is also added to za’atar. You can often identify this variation by the tiny flecks of deep red in the blend, and sumac’s distinctive bright and tart flavour profile. In Palestine, caraway seeds are added to za’atar.
Bear in mind that as za’atar is popular throughout the Middle East, there will inevitably be many variations to the blend. What’s important is that the prominent flavour of the oregano and the nutty notes of the sesames seeds remain.
Did you know that za’atar is also a herb?
Most people who are not familiar with Arabic cuisine only know za’atar as a delicious spice blend, however, za’atar is also a herb from the oregano family. Za’atar is grown throughout the Middle East and is also called wild za’atar, wild thyme, marjoram syriaca, bible hyssop or Lebanese oregano. Though adding wild za’atar to the za’atar spice and herb blend is certainly one of its most popular uses, wild za’atar is also used in salads and as a stuffing for pastries throughout the Levant.
Most commercial za’atar blends are not made with the authentic za’atar herb. However, producers mimic the taste of za’atar with substitutes such as marjoram, oregano and thyme.
How is the za’atar herb and spice blend used in cooking?
Unsurprisingly, the za’atar blend is used in many dishes in our cuisine. As the blend is fragrant, nutty, tart, intensely flavoured and complex, it can be used as a topping for many foods. The beauty of za’atar truly shines when it is used with bland foods as its multiple flavours can be cohesively highlighted.
Za’atar is often sprinkled over labneh and salads such as fattoush. Perhaps one of its earliest and most popular uses is to be mixed with olive oil and then eaten as a dip with Lebanese pita bread. Similarly, za’atar is often mixed with olive oil to form a thick paste – known as za’atar-wu-zayt in Arabic – and then spread on a raw dough base. It is cooked and then eaten; this dish is called za’atar manakeesh.
Za’atar can also be used as a seasoning for meats and vegetables due to its strong flavour profile and its ability to pierce through gamey meats such as lamb. Bear in mind that it can also be liberally sprinkled over meats to offer both added flavour and textural contrast.
How do I find high-quality za’atar near me?
Finding high-quality za’atar is not as easy as you may think. In Sydney, we are fortunate to not just have an array of Middle Eastern ingredients but also many wonderful Middle Eastern and Lebanese shops that cater specifically to these ingredients. Most times, these shops will carry high-quality za’atar, however, if you’re unsure, here are a few tips:
- Beware of za’atar blends with a high proportion of fillers such as toast flour, ground peanuts, ground wheat, ground chickpeas, ground peas, ground roasted melon seed kernel and ground roasted watermelon seed kernel. Usually, the higher the ingredient in the list, the larger the proportion in the list. These fillers will cloud the true flavour of za’atar.
- Look out for premium grade za’atar blends. These usually have the most flavour because it is made from carefully cultivated seeds from the za’atar herb found in the wild which contain a higher content of essential oils.
- While there are variations in za’atar blends, it should stray too far from the main ingredients of za’atar – oregano, thyme and sesame seeds. If you’re in search of Lebanese za’atar then ensure it has sumac and not citric acid – a cheaper alternative some companies use to mimic the tartness of sumac.
Za’atar is both a beautiful herb and blend that is important to Arabic cuisine in many countries and to Zahli.