What Is Za’atar? And What Do You Do With It?

When I taste that burst of lime and chile, I know I’m experiencing delicious fresh Mexican food. When I eat the “holy trinity” and a well-made roux, I feel like I’m in Cajun country. When you partake in classic Middle Eastern food, you recognize that united flavor, even if you don’t know what it’s called. More than likely, you are tasting za’atar. What is za’atar? What is in za’atar seasoning? Hang on, gang, because we’re about to find out how to use za’atar.

What is za’atar?

Za’atar is a versatile Middle Eastern spice blend that can be used in marinades or as a seasoning to liven up countless foods. Okay that’s a pretty broad definition. What exactly is in  za’atar seasoning? How do you make it? At its base, za’atar is usually made of thyme, sesame seeds, and sumac. But za’atar is a wildly flexible spice blend that has various recipes and herb ratios throughout the Middle East, some of which are deeply guarded family secrets. A common za’atar recipe consists of dried oregano, thyme, marjoram,  sumac, and toasted sesame seeds. Other spices that are sometimes thrown in there are salt, dried orange zest, dried dill, cumin, and coriander. 

With me so far? Good, because I’m about to throw in some information that may be a little confusing. Another common ingredient of za’atar is za’atar. What the heck does that mean? Well in addition to being a spice blend, there is also a particular herb called za’atar. The herb za’atar is also called wild thyme or Syrian oregano. This herb grows throughout the Levant, so it is commonly used there in the spice blend. When the herb is not available, plain ground up thyme is used. 

How to pronounce za’atar?

Pronouncing za’atar as it’s said correctly in Arabic may be difficult for people who only speak English. That middle “aah” sound is an emphasizing vowel felt in the back of the throat that many folks won’t recognize if they don’t speak Arabic. So to pronounce za’atar in English, just go with emphasizing that first syllable, ZAH, with a big open mouth. Like a doctor told you to say “aaah.” Then follow that with a deemphasized, almost swallowed “tar.” If you want to get fancy and you know how, you can roll that last “r.” ZAH-tar.

How to use za’atar?

Za’atar can be used in a ton of ways. You can mix it with oil to use as a marinade on grilled meats. You can sprinkle za’atar into hummus, bake it into flatbread, mix it with olive oil or tahini to make a dip, and even toss it into salads. Za’atar has an herby and earthy flavor profile with bursts of lemony tartness and nuttiness. So throw it on anything where that sounds good!

About the Author

Will Morgan

Will Morgan, a freelance contributor to Sporked, is an L.A. based writer, actor, and sketch comedy guy. Originally from Houston, TX, he strongly believes in the superiority of breakfast tacos to breakfast burritos. Will traveled the world as one of those people that did yoyo shows at elementary school assemblies, always making a point to find local and regional foods to explore in whatever place he was, even in rinky-dink towns like Tilsonberg, ON. Will spends his birthdays at Benihana’s. Let him know if can make it.

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