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Take a trip down the spice aisle of your local grocery store and you will likely find spices that you have never even used. It is a big, wide world of spices out there, after all. This becomes even more apparent when you have the chance to take a trip to any international grocery store, whether it is Latin, Asian, Indian, Middle Eastern … anywhere, really. It can be overwhelming knowing which new spice to try first; za’atar, a Middle Eastern spice blend, might just be one of those. Let’s learn a little more about this savory blend and how you can use it in the kitchen.
What is Za’atar?
Za’atar is a spice blend of Levantine origin, though its exact origins are tricky to pinpoint because it has been used since biblical times. The first use of za’atar was very different from what it is today; it was originally derived from a plant called za’atar or hyssop, which was considered a ceremonial herb in the Old Testament. Today, za’atar is a spice blend that is sometimes marketed as “biblical hyssop” in Israel.
The primary ingredients of modern za’atar are thyme (oregano or marjoram may be used instead), sesame seeds, and sumac, a type of bright, red berry that grows on bushes in the Middle East. Sumac berries are harvested, dried, and ground into powder, which can be used on its own or combined with other spices, such as in za’atar. Sumac has a tangy, lemony flavor that adds a touch of sour flavor to za’atar. Za’atar’s combination of thyme, sesame seeds, and sumac results in a spice blend that is nutty, tangy, herbal, and very versatile. Today, this unique spice blend is a staple in Middle Eastern countries, but it is also popular in North African countries as well as Greece.
Though you are likely to find za’atar at your local Middle Eastern grocery, nothing can compare to homemade spice blends. Luckily, za’atar is easy to make at home. First, you will need an empty bottle. It’s always helpful to hold onto empty spice bottles for this purpose. Using a kitchen funnel (or a homemade funnel made from a rolled up piece of paper held together with tape), combine 2 tablespoons sumac, 2 tablespoons thyme, and 2 tablespoons sesame seeds (raw or toasted, according to your preference). Cover the spice jar, shake it up, and store in a cool, dark place.
That is the recipe for basic za’atar, but there are also several ways you can make your own. You could also try this recipe for Homemade Za’atar, which swaps thyme for oregano and includes sea salt while this Homemade Za’atar Blend uses pink salt and both fresh and dry thyme. This Spelt Focaccia With Rosemary Za’atar includes a recipe for za’atar that is made with rosemary instead of thyme, oregano, or marjoram while the blend in this Za’atar Grilled Eggplant Salad uses both thyme and marjoram as the savory herbs.
Za’atar is a very versatile spice blend. It is used to add flavor to meat and vegetables, as an herbal infusion for olive oil, and as a marinade for olives. A popular use of za’atar is sprinkling it over flatbread, stirring it into yogurt, or adding it to dips such as hummus, baba ghanoush, or tzatziki. It can even be used as a condiment for soups, as in this Creamy Chickpea Soup With Black Tahini and Za’atar.
Za’atar pairs perfectly with grilled vegetables, as in this Za’atar Grilled Eggplant Salad, where eggplant slices are brushed with olive oil, za’atar, and pine nuts before being grilled. It melds beautifully with the flavors of harissa, a spicy North African hot pepper paste, in this Moroccan Pilaf Stuffed Squash and in these Roasted Cauliflower Spelt Za’atar Bowls, the vegetables are tossed with olive oil and za’atar as a finishing touch. It would also make the perfect final addition to this Tahini-Roasted Cauliflower With Lemony Herb Oil or you could substitute the herbs in the lemony herb oil for za’atar.
This Spelt Focaccia With Rosemary Za’atar is a great example of how za’atar can be used with flatbread. Before the bread is baked, it is brushed with olive oil, then sprinkled with a homemade za’atar blend as well as braised fennel and toasted pine nuts. In this Chermoula-Spiced Karantita and Pomegranate Salad, za’atar is folded into the flatbread dough. Or, add a tablespoon or two of za’atar to a small bowl of olive oil and use it for dipping flatbread. Try it with these Lemon Thyme and Roasted Garlic Flatbreads, this Algerian Flatbread, this Chickpea Flatbread, or this Homemade Pita Bread.
You could also use olive oil dip for the bread in this Grilled Vegetable, Olive Flatbread, and Hummus Plate or you could use another popular way to use za’atar: mixing it with hummus. As with olive oil, just add a tablespoon or two to the hummus, then spread it over the bread, add vegetables, and eat it like a wrap. For other wrap ideas, add za’atar to the tahini sauce in this Eggplant Kebab With Tahini Sauce or the dairy-free tzatziki in these Portobello Gyros With Hemp Tzatziki.
Za’atar is perfectly paired with any dip that uses Middle Eastern or North African flavors and ingredients. Try adding a sprinkle to this Lemon and Thyme Baba Ghanoush, this Fennel and Carrot Purée, this Chia Muhammara, this Thyme and Pistachio White Bean Dip, and this Mesabacha Hummus. Or try this Artichoke Olive Tapenade With Za’atar.
Finally, za’atar can even be used for breakfast. Add za’atar to this Homemade Coconut Greek Yogurt and use it as a dip or pair it with this Middle East-inspired Rose Petal, Cashew, and Olive Oil Granola for breakfast. Or, swap the dukkah in this Naan Avocado Toast With Dukkah and Pan-Fried Chickpeas for za’atar for a unique take on avocado toast.
You can find za’atar at any Middle Eastern grocery store and possibly at grocery stores that carry a lot of specialty items, like Whole Foods. Otherwise, you can make your own or buy online. Sumac, a key ingredient in za’atar, can be hard to come by in everyday grocery stores, but luckily, you can buy that online, too. This Spicy World Sumac is preground, so it’s perfect for making your own za’atar. One 7-ounce bag costs $6.95. Otherwise, this USimplySeason Za’atar Seasoning Blend is great for all your za’atar needs. It is a blend of thyme, oregano, and marjoram as well as sumac and roasted sesame seeds. One 2-ounce bottle costs $8.95.
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