All About Za’atar with Recipe for Za’atar Herb Blend and 5 Recipes for Using Za’atar

Za'atar Bread and Labneh

If za’atar is within reach, anyone can make delicious food at the drop of a hat. The possibilities are endless: Za’atar Olives, Za’atar and Labneh, Za’atar Tomato Sauce with Grilled Meat, Za’atar Bread, and Za’atar Pizza are only a few ways to use this versatile ingredient. I almost have my Za’atar Chicken recipe ready to post.

Za’atar is valued for more than great taste. “Who for forty days eats powdered dried leaves of za’tar fasting can be harmed by no serpent.” If the worst happens and you’re bitten by an asp or stung by a scorpion, za’atar cures “the bitings and the stings of venomous beasts.” A Bethlehem proverb teaches, “Thyme and oil lead to the prosperity of the home.” Even more importantly, “eating za’atar improves your memory and makes you more intelligent.”

So what is za’atar?

A. An herb blend
B. Savory
C. Thyme
D. Oregano
E. Biblical hyssop
F. All of the above

The answer is “(F) All of the above.”

Za’atar (ZAHT-ar) is a class of herbs, and includes members of the thyme, oregano, and savory families. Za’atar is also a Middle Eastern herb blend, containing one or more of the za’atar herbs. As with many centuries-old dishes, za’atar blend has many regional and familial variations.

Disparity in za’atar’s spelling is pervasive; za’atar, za’tar, zatar, zahtar, satar, zahatar, and za’ater are all used. The spelling confusion is easy to explain. Za’atar is an Arabic word (الزعتر). Like Greek and other languages that don’t use the Roman alphabet, Arabic is inconsistently transliterated into English.

Some experts claim the herb za’atar is only one specific type of savory; others claim with equal vehemence it’s one specific type of oregano. Both may be right, but only for the region or family they’re writing about.

No matter its local or historical usage, “za’atar” has come to be a generic term used in the Middle East for a group of similarly-flavored members of the herb genus Lamiaceae. Za’atar herbs grow in the same habitat and have similar appearances. These practical factors may have led Middle Easterners to use one word for all the plants.

Linguistic confusion over “za’atar” is not unique to Arabic. In Turkish, the plant groups Origanum, Thymbra, Coridothymus, Satureja, and Thymus, generically called za’atar in Arabic, are all referred to as “kekik.”

Scientific analysis supports the pragmatic use of one word to refer to a plant group rather than a single plant. Gas chromatography and mass spectrometry show “the chemical profiles of the specific chemotypes of Satureja thymbra L. and Thymbra spicata L [a]re very similar. They are also very similar to those of the chemotypes of Coridothymus capitatus and Origanum syriacum.” [These four herb species are all called za’atar.]

Adding to the confusion, each za’atar herb is known by more than one name:

· Coridothymus capitatus aka Thymus capitatus aka Satureia/Satureja capitata (conehead thyme, headed savory, Persian hyssop, za’atar parsi, Spanish oregano)

· Origanum maru aka Origanum syriacum/cyriacum aka Marjorana syriaca (Biblical hyssop, Lebanese oregano, Syrian oregano, Egyptian marjoram)

· Satureja/Satureia thymbra (Roman za’atar, za’atar rumi, pink savory, barrel sweetener; in Greek, Θρούμπι, Τραγορίγανη)

· Thymbra spicata (spiked thyme, donkey hyssop, desert hyssop)

There are also several varieties of commercially available za’atar blends. For example, according to Paula Wolfert, “The taste of a za’atar mixture can be herbal, nutty, or toasty. …’Israeli’ is a pale green blend of pungent herbs that includes the biblical hyssop, along with toasted sesame seeds and sumac. The ‘Syrian’ blend, the color of sand, has a decidedly toasty flavor. The ‘Jordanian’ blend is dark green and very herbal, with some turmeric.” These aren’t the only za’atar blends; each spice merchant and family has a unique formula.

Before creating my own za’atar blend, I bought and tasted several commercially available varieties. I experimented with diverse combinations of herbs trying to best approximate the flavor of my favorite commercial brand. I also read as many English-language za’atar recipes as I could find.

For the herbal flavor in za’atar blend, many North American recipes use only dried domestic thyme, or a mixture of domestic thyme and domestic marjoram. These recipes, when tasted side by side with imported za’atar blends, tasted bland to me. I discovered that Greek oregano (preferably, but not necessarily, wild-harvested and sold on the stem) is key to creating flavorful za’atar in Alaska. Greek oregano’s spicy flavor, when tempered by combining it with dried wild or domestic thyme, approximates the flavor of authentic za’atar blend.

For anyone interested in growing their own, the various plants referred to as za’atar can be purchased from Well Sweep Herb Farm or Mountain Valley Growers. Although they’re tasty, keep in mind that most domestically grown herbs don’t have the flavor of their wild progenitors. There’s nothing like scarce water, poor soil, and hot sun for developing flavor.

For those who live where there are Middle Eastern markets or specialty stores, by all means buy ready-made, preferably imported, za’atar. You can also order za’atar blends online.In Anchorage, you can buy sumac, a key ingredient in my za’atar blend, at Sagaya, City Market, and Summit Spice. Summit Spice sells its own Anchorage-made za’atar blend in tiny packets using marjoram, thyme, sumac, and sesame seeds. Summit also has a product labeled “Greek oregano,” which they tell me may be grown on farms in Greece or Turkey, depending on the shipment.

Be sure to check out the recipes mentioned in this post:


20 Responses to All About Za’atar with Recipe for Za’atar Herb Blend and 5 Recipes for Using Za’atar

  1. Mediterranean kiwi says:

    wow, a post with so many punches, i’m knocked out.
    we have a great selection of spices, both local and foreign ones available in various places in hania, so i dont think it will be difficult to replicate this in hania – probably the local arab population have already done that, and i thinking that this is probably one of the smells that emanates from their kitchen as i walk through the economic migrants’ rental suburbs in hania

    the transliterations were interesting – there is no one agreed on english spelling for anything in greek, from my research

    the pinkish bits make this spice mixture a must have for decorating all this yummy food you’ve prepared with it – i could survive on flatbreads and olives, supplememnted with a bit of cheese…

  2. What a great post — with so many interesting and delicious looking possibilities from the spice blend. I, particularly, like the addition of sesame seeds.

  3. Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) says:

    Fabulous post! I remember the first time I tasted za’atar. It was at a Lebanese festival, and some men were making za’atar pizza on top of an old metal drum sitting in a wood fire. They would slather the dough with oil, and then spread the za’atar with their hands on one side. Slap it onto the hot drum, wait a minute or two, and it was done. I had cravings for weeks afterward.

  4. Mediterranean Turkish Cook says:

    Za’atar has so many uses as you have shown in your post. I used to think za’atar only meant “thyme” or “kekik”, but a while back, a friend mentioned that za’taar is a combination of herbs which is sold in one of the stores around here. So I realized it can mean different things. When mixed with olive oil the taste is heavenly I was told. I like the za’tar in the olives. In Turkey, we prepare olives with thyme and olive oil for breakfast instead of appetizer. Great post, as always.

  5. Bellini Valli says:

    I have a recipe all plannned out for some time this week to make a flatbread with my z’ataar or dukka. Great minds think alike:D

  6. I LOVE zaatar. My favorite application is probably something like your delicious looking flatbread, but I also just love it rubbed on chicken with a little olive oil & lemon juice before it's cooked. Everything here looks so great, I really want to make the olives!

  7. Fabulous post! I love Za’atar however you spell it, but I didn’t know half this stuff about it.

    (And I do hope that when I’m not teaching school all day I can write things half as good as this!)

  8. Lulu Barbarian says:

    Wow! What an educational post! I’ve never met za’atar but your recipes sound so good I want to! I love it that you give a recipe for the za’atar itself, rather than just how to use it.

  9. What a fascinating post! I was not sure what za’atar was when I would read it – but now I know. I will be investigating what is available at our international market, and then attempting my own blend. We make pizza in a brick oven and I’m sure za’atar pizza will be a big hit. Thanks!

  10. I am completely smitten by this post Laurie! I have a special place in my stomach for savoury breads like naan, chapati, roti, focaccia breads and other savoury flat breads. Funny how bread always manages to leave my stomach and end up on my hips 😀 The za’tar pizzas and flatbread look incredible! I recently made a purchase from the World Spice Merchants on-line and I’m eagerly awaiting my dukka mix among others! Thanks for introducing me to this spice site. It’s very inspiring!

  11. Your posts are never stingy…most would stretch out these recipes.

    Zaatar sounds like a wonderful flavouring for Lagana.

  12. Maria, if you can make this with both wild thyme and oregano it’s even better. The pinkish bits are the sumac.

    Joan, I like the toasty flavor of the sesame seeds.

    Oh my, Lydia, does that ever sound good. Wow, I want some of that.

    Val, it must be the season!

    Elly, yes, it’s wonderful with chicken. I’ll have my version of that as soon as I get around to typing it.

    Kalyn, thanks!!

    Lulu, I’m glad you like it!

    Cora, wow – pizza in a brick oven?? You are very lucky!

    Bijoux, why is it that bread likes to land on hips?? It’s so wrong. I’m glad you found World Spice – they are very helpful people (and sell such good quality products).

    Peter, stingy?? Never! (I hope.)

  13. Yeah finally a use for that giant bag of sumac I bought because going through the grocery store hungry tends to lead to so many odd purchases.

  14. Mike of Mike's Table says:

    I’ve wondered what zatar is but had never done the research. This answers a lot of questions and it definitely sounds like something fun to play with. All those applications (the flatbread and pizza are my fave) look delicious!

  15. Oh, I do miss finding Greek oregano on the stem…I’ll have to see if I can find that here. I can’t wait to try this at home, esp. the olives and the flatbread. BTW, were those GREEN olives with your pork cutlet?!! Have you come around to the Dark Side of Green Olive Lovers? ;D

  16. tasteofbeirut says:

    I am so impressed by your post on zaatar! I am doing a giveaway on my blog that includes zaatar and if you don't mind I will link to this article, as I promised to include a booklet of recipes with the goodies to the winner.
    I love zaatar, eat it every day!

  17. Maria Hillhouse says:

    What an interesting and mouth-watering post. A friend of mine had a bag full of a zatar blend, probably from a Middle Eastern market, and she generously gave me a jar full. I usually make the zatar flatbread as a snack or to accompany other middle eastern food, but I can’t wait to try the olives and tomato sauce.

    • Hey Maria! Marie Markossian serves za’atar and olive oil topped pita bread for breakfast, along with string cheese, tomatoes, and olives. She puts the za’atar on thickly and oven-warms the pita. It’s a very delicious approach to a wonderful ingredient.

  18. Very informative. Zaazar for me is he taste of my homeland. I can’t compare the taste of both the dry spice mix (which always feels a bit moist!) and also the fresh Zaatar that know from Israel-Palestine to some of the thing I find in my new home in Berlin, Germany. Whenever I go to visit my family or whenever someone comes to visit me I ask them to bring some of the spice mix, and use it also for my cooking classes (I do classes about Israeli-Palestinian cuisine). And whenever I visit Israel I go to the the old city in Jerusalem, in the muslim quarter there are these farmer women who sell bundles of fresh Zaatar, oh my God, the smell… the taste… Thanks for this post.

    • Laurie Constantino says:

      Ofir, it’s so great to hear about your experiences with Zaatar. Wish I lived closer – I’d take one of your classes!

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