An authentic recipe for Levantine Za'atar Spice Blend with Syrian oregano, sumac, sesame seeds and spices. From my family to yours. Rub it on chicken thighs, sprinkle it over hummus or roll labneh balls in it.
What is za’atar?
This is a trick question! Za’atar refers to both the herb and the namesake spice blend. The perennial woody herb Origanum syriacum is most widely known as za’atar. It has many other common names including Syrian Oregano, Lebanese Oregano, Bible Hyssop or Biblical Hyssop. The challenge with following common names is that they can be quite misleading. Some call it thyme, further confusing the matter. This herb is very difficult to find in North America and Europe. It grows wild throughout the Levant.
Zaatar spice blend however is an herbaceous mixture of Origanum syriacum, sumac, sesame seeds and other spices. Some regional variations exist. For example, some Jordanian Za’atar mixes will include wheat. Others will include cumin and other spices. At the end of the day, there are as many recipes and variations as there are families in the Levant and each one has its own preferences.
Can I grow Zaatar?
Yes! This is why I’m such a proponent of growing your own herbs. I was able to secure access to true Origanum syriacum seeds. I grew several plants, harvested and dried the leaves to make my own zaatar blend. Growing zaatar is quite easy. It grows much like Greek oregano, thyme and rosemary.
If you’re new to gardening, starting out by growing herbs is a wonderful way to enjoy unique and hard-to-find varieties. It’s also a wonderful way to be more self-sufficient and learn how to preserve and dry the harvest.
This recipe was written for those who don’t have access to traditional wild Syrian Oregano. The flavor profile in this recipe closely resembles traditional flavor.
Where to buy
If you’re not interested in making your own, you can certainly purchase za’atar at all Middle Eastern grocers. Many spice blend brands have added zaatar to their lineup and you can easily find it at many grocers like Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods. It can also be found online.
That being said, I will warn you that most of the Western commercial blends do not compare to authentic imported Levantine Za’atar blends. They will be packed with marjoram or oregano, as opposed to true zaatar herb. As mentioned above, authentic Za’atar uses Origanum syriacum (Syrian Oregano).
Buying an imported blend will give you the most authentic taste. Imported blends will often have olive oil added to them, in very small quantities. That's why they will appear darker in color and will almost feel slightly damp. This is completely normal. Check out the side-by-side comparison below. The bowl on the left is an imported commercial Palestinian Za'atar product. The one on the right is the za'atar from this recipe.
How to make this spice blend
Making your own spice blends is as easy as mixing and storing. There's not much else to it. In a bowl or jar, combine the ingredeints and mix.
An important note, if you don’t have access to roasted sesame seeds, you can easily pan-roast raw sesame seeds to bring out their toasty flavor and aroma.
In a dry pan set on medium heat, add the untoasted sesame seeds. Shake the pan over the heat until the sesame seeds turn from a pale cream color or a light brown color.
I can appreciate that finding authentic dried Syrian Oregano is difficult (It's not impossible though). Here are a few substitution combinations that will work in a pinch.
- Syrian Oregano (Za'atar herb): Use Greek Oregano instead.
- Marjoram: Use Summer Savory instead.
- Toasted Sesame Seeds: Use untoasted raw seeds, but make sure to dry roast them first (see method above).
If making your own blend based on the recipe below, you can store it in a glass mason jar in your pantry. I recommend using it within 6 months for optimal freshness.
How to use this spice blend
The uses for zaatar are endless.
- The most traditional way to enjoy it is for breakfast. Dip a piece of pita or crusty bread in good quality olive oil, then dip it in a small bowl of za’atar and enjoy.
- Bake it (Man’oushe). Mix zaatar with olive oil and spread it over pizza dough or pita dough and bake.
- Sprinkle it over hummus or Mutabal.
- Use it as a base for a hearty Za’atar Chicken main dish.
- Mix it with thick yogurt and serve it with crudites and pita wedges.
- Enjoy it in Labneh Balls.
- Sprinkle it on a Tomato Galette.
- Add it to your next sliced tomato sandwich.
- Use the freshest dried herbs possible. When shopping for dried herbs, it's important to ensure they are as fresh as possible. As dried herbs sit on the shelf, their flavor deteriorates.
- Don't use thyme. There are many recipes online that use thyme rather than the traditional Syrian Organo. Thyme has far too strong of a flavor and I recommend using greek oregano instead.
- Tasted sesame seeds are a must. If you can only find raw untoasted sesame seeds, take the time to toast them for optimal flavor and crunch.
- Season lightly. Go easy on the salt. Season lightly. Remember you can always add salt but you can't take it out.
It's both. Za’atar refers to both the herb (Origanum syriacum) and the namesake spice blend popular thoughout the Middle East.
A perennial woody herb native to the Levant, most widely known as za’atar. It has many other common names including Syrian Oregano, Lebanese Oregano, Bible Hyssop or Biblical Hyssop.
Yes. Most Zaatar blends should include sumac, the dried red berries of the perenial shrub of the same name. Sumac berries are dried and ground into a spice widley used in the Middle East.
Anglicizing Arabic words can result in different English spellings, depending on the dialect of the speaker. The English spelling of the Arabic word (زَعْتَر) sometimes varies (Za'atar, Zaatar, or Za atar) but "Za'atar" is most commonly seen.
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Za'atar Spice Blend
- 2 tablespoon Syrian Oregano - Substitute Greek Oregano
- 2 tablespoon Marjoram - Substitute Summer Savory or Greek Oregano
- 2 tablespoon Sumac
- 2 tablespoon Sesame seeds - Toasted
- ½ teaspoon Kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon Cumin - Optional
- In a small bowl, combine all the ingredients and transfer to a glass jar or container.
- Syrian Oregano (Za'atar herb): Use Greek Oregano instead.
- Marjoram: Use Summer Savory or Greek Oregano instead.
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