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Spice Spotlight: Everything You Need to Know about Za’atar

18 June 2024

Za’atar is an essential part of traditional Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cooking. This popular spice blend has been around for centuries, lending its earthy and aromatic flavour to a range of dishes from different regions. 

It appeared throughout household kitchens in the Levant and, more recently, has found its way into supermarkets in North America. Flatbreads, seasoned with fragrant za’atar, are available in grocery stores and bakeries, with za’atar-topped dips only a few aisles away.

Like many traditional spice blends, za’atar does not have a set recipe (although it does have a few essential ingredients). Consequently, it can be easily personalized to your brand. 

The food experts at Hela Spice can tailor the blend to your customers’ taste buds, while staying true to the nuanced flavour profile that has made za’atar popular for centuries. Keep reading to learn more about this versatile and irresistible spice blend.

What is Za’atar?

Za’atar is a spice blend composed of dried oregano, thyme, sumac, and toasted sesame seeds. Although mostly associated with Middle Eastern cooking, it also appears in some Mediterranean dishes. 

Consequently, the ingredients used to make za’atar do vary between regions. It’s common for each household to have their own special version! Some may add marjoram, dried dill, orange zest, salt, or caraway seeds. Sumac, however, is an essential ingredient.

The Arabic word “za’atar” actually refers to a wild, mint-related herb that’s similar to oregano and marjoram. This herb (also known as hyssop) grows plentifully across the Levant and, as a result, is a pillar of Levantine cooking.

What is Sumac?

Ground sumac is a spice made from the berries of the wild sumac flower. Its name means “dark red” in Arabic and refers to the spice’s crimson red colour. Sumac has a tangy, bright, and lemony flavour that’s popular in Middle Eastern cooking.

Za’atar Spice Blend Recipe

Mix dried oregano (preferably Greek or Turkish), sumac, sesame seeds, dried marjoram, dried thyme, and fine sea salt. You can also add toasted earthy spices like ground coriander and cumin.

What does Za’atar taste like?

Za’atar is considered a savoury spice blend renowned for its simplicity and adaptability. It is very earthy, with subtle undertones of citrus and a hint of nuttiness. Thanks to the sumac, this spice blend brings a lemony brightness to dishes (and a burst of tartness). Za’atar is also known for being extremely fragrant and aromatic.

The History of Za’atar

Za’atar is an ancient traditional spice blend dating back to 12th century Levantine culture. Ancient Egyptian records also reference za’atar extensively, although we don’t know exactly how the spice was used. There are even remnants of some ingredients used to make za’atar in King Tutankhamun’s tomb!

Additionally, many Bible scholars believe that za’atar is referred to in the Old Testament. It describes using the herb “ezov” (hyssop) in ritual cleansing ceremonies and, possibly, as a cure for leprosy. Over the centuries, za’atar has been used as a perfume, medicine, and supplement.

However, much of za’atar’s long history is unknown. This is because za’atar recipes were kept secret in traditional Middle Eastern cultures. The women maintained extreme secrecy over the ingredients used in their households blends, so much so that the recipes were often withheld from their daughters.

How to Use Za’atar

Za’atar is commonly used as a seasoning, finishing spice, or as a condiment. It accentuates bright, herbaceous, and earthy flavours with ease, while also adding a nutty, toasty crunch.

It’s best to bloom za’atar before applying it to a cold dish (or any other dish that will not be heated up). To do so, first heat up olive oil or butter in a skillet. Once it’s hot, remove from the heat and add the za’atar. This gently fries the spices and herbs, resulting in an evenly distributed and most intense flavour and aroma.

Common Uses for Za’atar

Za’atar is incredibly versatile; its applications are nearly endless. Traditionally, za’atar was baked into flatbread. Bakers mixed za’atar with olive oil to create a paste, which was spread over raw dough. The dough was then baked rapidly to create deliciously soft Lebanese bread.

This adaptable spice blend is also a key ingredient in man’oushe, which is a popular traditional Middle Eastern snack. To make man’oushe, apply a za’atar-olive-oil paste to a pita and then bake.

Za’atar is also commonly sprinkled over dips, like labneh, baba ganoush (made from eggplant), or hummus (made from chickpeas). Alternatively, za’atar can be combined with olive oil to make a simple dip for bread. Some also mix za’atar with tahini for a thicker dip.

In addition, za’atar is used as a marinade for vegetables or meat. It’s tasty as a spice rub applied to grilled or roasted proteins like chicken, lamb, beef, or fish. You can also use za’atar to season roasted vegetables.

Some modern uses for za’atar include sprinkling the spice blend over popcorn or avocado toast. It can also be tossed in salads or added to a salad dressing for extra flavour.

Recipe Ideas Featuring Za’atar

  • Manakeesh flatbread
  • Za’atar roasted chicken
  • Chickpea salad with eggplants
  • Olive oil baked sweet potato fries
  • Za’atar oven-roasted vegetables

The Health Benefits of Za’atar

Za’atar has long been used for its potential health benefits. It has antioxidant properties because of the presence of thyme, oregano and sumac. These herbs are rich in antioxidants, which help lower the risk of chronic diseases and oxidative stress. Additionally, these herbs are anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial. Thyme has traditionally been used to improve digestion, as well.

Middle Eastern cultures used za’atar to improve brain health and performance. Children were commonly fed za’atar before exams to give them an extra boost of brain power.

There is some evidence that za’atar may boost neurotransmitter production and improve cognitive function. Oregano, in particular, may also protect against neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. 

Hela Spice: North America’s Leading Food Product Development Company

Hela Spice is the leading food product development company in North America. We have more than 100 years of experience in crafting best-selling products and mouth-watering flavours. Contact us today to learn how you can use spice blends like za’atar in your products to attract (and satiate) your customers.

To learn more about our food product development company, visit our website or contact us here.

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