Thyme and za’tar

I have just photographed the purple thyme in the back of our garden. We found them growing wild when we bought the property and we never seize to be amazed by their glorious bloom, early in June. I also took some pictures of the za’tar plant that our friend Lina Tabara brought us last year from Lebanon, in a pot. It is thriving in our garden and the butterflies love it!


I was wondering for many years about za’tar (or zaatar) the mysterious aromatic shrub –often called hyssop or wild thyme– and only now that we grow it in the garden I can safely tell you that it is much closer to the kind of oregano that grows on the island, or the marjoram, than with the wild thyme of Greece. Its aroma is totally different, and I agree with Jihad Noun, an expert in Lebanese plant species, who in a wonderful article about the herb said that za’tar “is a taste more than a species.” He claims that in the Middle East there are about 22 herbs that are called za’tar.


Za’tar: Island oregano

To add to the confusion about za’tar, the perennial herb’s identity and the persisting dispute about which is the precise dried aromatic one should use to make the eponymous spice blend, there is yet another variety of fresh thyme, also called za’tar.

It is not a perennial and was probably gathered wild in the old days together with other fresh aromatics. Now Middle Easterners plant it every spring in the gardens. Its vivid green pointy leaves, larger than the leaves of common thyme, are eaten fresh in the Arab countries and in Turkey.


The fragrant sprigs are added to salads, and occasionally flavor summer stews and marinades for grilled meat, fish and vegetables. Musa Dağdeviren, the famous Istanbul chef, serves an unusual zahter salad in his restaurant Siya Sofrasi.

My friend, the food writer Anissa Helou, brought us seeds from Lebanon and we planted the green za’tar in the garden. It sprouted late in April and grew into a very attractive shrub. The leaves have an addictive lemony, aromatic and slightly peppery taste. It was a revelation for us, and we love to add it to our everyday tomato salad.


We still wonder how come it is not more widely known and used in Europe and the US.

See the Recipe: Za’tar, the spice blend


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