Za’atar – Fresh Herb & Spice Blend
I tried fresh za’atar for the first time a few weeks ago, and it was really surprising – like a taste you recognize but can’t quite put your finger on. When I taste it, I get the pungency of oregano, the woodsiness of thyme, and a zest that reminds me of mint. Za’atar is from the marjoram family, and it’s pretty hard to find fresh. I lucked out with this plant because the Union Square Greenmarket happened to carry it.
Za’atar is not only a fresh herb but also a spice blend used in Middle Eastern cooking. The blend is traditionally comprised of crushed, dried fresh za’atar, toasted sesame seeds, and ground sumac with salt and other spices or herbs. The blend differs from region to region and even from household to household. Lebanese za’atars include orange peel, nigella seeds, and anise, whereas the Syrian version includes roasted cumin and paprika and the Israeli version, dill weed and garlic.
Although za’atar can be found at Middle Eastern groceries and even Whole Foods, using dried or fresh thyme makes a great approximation for homemade variations. Sesame seeds add nuttiness and sumac tartness. In the Middle East, unleavened bread is first dipped in olive oil and then za’atar. It’s awesome as a dip for crudités when mixed with yogurt and sour cream and also makes a versatile spice rub for anything from fish to meats.