Za’tar, the spice blend

I heard that in the old days, Lebanese schoolchildren ate warm pita bread spread with a mixture of za’tar and olive oil before leaving home on exam days. People believe that the fragrant spice, herb and sesame mixture gives strength and clears the mind. The sweet flavor of toasted sesame seeds is wonderfully complemented by the red, sour-tart sumac in this classic Arab spice blend. There are many version of the spice mixture throughout the Middle East:The green Lebanese za’tar consists of toasted sesame seeds mixed with just the local herb za’tar and sumac. In Syria the gold-colored blend may have more spices –cumin, paprica, caraway, fennel seeds etc.


The particular kind of Syrian or Lebanese thyme –za’tar in Arabic — is different from the Greek or the European common thyme, or the hyssop that you will see listed in some recipes for the spice mixture. As the particular kind of Middle Eastern herb is not readily available, I prefer to use a combination of dried thyme and savory. But as with all spice mixtures, the ingredients and proportions are a matter of taste, so feel free to experiment with the variations, additions and substitutions that you prefer.

Uses: Mix 1 – 2 tablespoons of za’tar with 2-3 tablespoons virgin olive oil and spread on warm toasted bread or pita. Top with Marras or Aleppo pepper flakes or freshly ground black pepper to taste. I particularly like to top with the the za’tar paste homemade flat bread or frozen pizza dough just before baking the thin breads in a very hot the oven, on the barbeque or on the griddle.

Makes about 1 cup.

5 tablespoons sesame seed
1/2 cup dried Mediterranean thyme, or a combination of 1/4 cup Mediterranean savory and 1/4 cup Mediterranean thyme
1/4 cup sumac (see note)
½ teaspoon coarse sea salt
1 teaspoon cumin seeds (optional)

Warm a skillet over medium-high heat and toast the sesame seeds turning with a spatula until just golden, about 3 minutes. Grind the savory, sumac, salt, cumin, if using, and the toasted sesame seeds in a spice grinder or clean coffee grinder until you obtain an almost fine powder. Alternatively you can grind the spices and add the toasted sesame seeds. Keep in a sealed jar in a cool, dark, and dry place. Zaatar will begin to lose its flavor after 2 months.

Sumac: The ground tangy deep red fruits of sumac (Rhus corioria) are sprinkled over yogurt sauces, on spreads, as well as on onion and other salads. In the old days cooks used to steep whole dried sumac fruits in water and use the liquid as flavoring. Sumac is part of the large wild pistachio family. One very close relation is the Italian lentiscus (skinos in Greek), a shrub with small, hard, and very fragrant leaves that grows in clusters on the most dry and rocky Mediterranean shores. Ancient Greeks used to flavor olive oil with branches of skinos, and today you will find green olives scented with lentiscus leaves. Mastic, the popular Greek and Middle Eastern crystallized sap that flavors breads and sweets –also used in herbal cosmetics– is the resin of another plant (Pistacia lentiscus) belonging to the same family.

Read the article: Thyme and za’tar


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