Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Spotlight on Ancient Herbs: Za'atar and Sumac


Za'atar (also spelled zaitar, zatar, zattar, zatr) means two things in Arabic:  it is the Arabic word for the herb thyme, and it is also the word for a thyme spice mixture.  The recipe varies across the Levant, and even varies within regions, as families grind their own cherished blends, but the Palestinian za'atar that I am most familiar with, the one that my mother makes, contains ground thyme, ground sumac, toasted sesame seeds and salt.  This spice mixture, collected from the land that they live on, holds in it the heart of the Palestinian.  To eat zait-and-za'atar, olive oil and this spice mixture, is to partake of our land. 

So, what is this wild thyme that grows in the hills around Jerusalem, and throughout the entire region?  There are a few species, all in the marjoram family, that look and taste very similarly.  One of these varieties is Origanum syriacum, also known as ezov in Hebrew, the biblical herb hyssop.  This was the herb that was used during the great Exodus, to brush the lamb's blood onto the Hebrew's door frame, and the branch that was lifted to Jesus's lips when he was dying on the cross.  This herb has great symbolic weight as a cleansing agent, as shown in King David's plea:

Cleanse me with hyssop and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.  (Psalm 51:7)

Wild za'atar still grows throughout Palestine; I remember my grandmother and mother bending down to pinch leaves off of small shrubs when we would be walking in the hills behind our house or along some wild trail, and they would declare, za'atar! with pleasure.

How Za'atar Is Used

Even though it is an herb blend, za'atar is mostly used as a condiment.  I remember it most as a part of our breakfast:  Arabic bread, spread with labani and sprinkled with za'atar and drizzled with olive oil.  Or, fried eggs, tomatoes and bread, with a bowl of olive oil and za'atar.  We would dip our bread into a bowl of olive oil, fresh enough to burn your throat a little, and then into the za'atar, which would stick to the olive oil. 

Za'atar is used often eaten in conjunction with labani, a simple yogurt cheese made from strained yogurt or kefir.  Its zesty flavor pairs very well with the creamy-tart cheese, and with olives, olive oil and bread.  Aged labani is sometimes rolled in za'atar.  The most popular za'atar dish is mana'ish, a fragrant flat bread spread with a mixture of olive oil and za'atar.  Za'atar, olive oil, and onions are also used to form the filling for small triangular turnovers, called fatayer.  One surprising use of za'atar is to mix it into a crunchy sesame-seed and olive oil cookie. 

Fresh za'atar, the green herb thyme, has many uses in Palestinian cuisine.  It is often chopped into a salad, dressed simply with lemon, olive oil, and sumac.  Fresh za'atar is also chopped and mixed into bread dough, formed into balls, and stuffed with a soft white cheese and baked. 

Outside of the Old City of Jerusalem, vendors push carts of ka'ac, a long oval-shaped sesame bread, and my favorite (but very messy!) treat was to tear open a hot, fresh ka'ac, which always came with a scrunched-up wad of newspaper.  Unwrap that newspaper carefully and you will find a little salty za'atar, for sprinkling into your sesame bread.   

Ka'ac vendor, outside Damascus Gate


Za'atar as Medicinal Tea

Palestinians strongly believe in the healing powers of the herb thyme (za'atar)  particularly for fighting off respiratory infections.  If you have a cold, everyone around you will recommend (or give you) thyme tea, which is simply a tea made from the steeped leaves of fresh or dried thyme.  They also believe that thyme boosts mental faculties - memory and clarity. 

It seems that once again this traditional wisdom is right - many sources agree (for example, The Handbook of Vintage Remedies by Jessie Hawkins) that thyme acts as an expectorant and can clear congestion.  Also, thymol, one of the oils in thyme is a powerful antioxidant, and can boost the amount of fatty acids in the brain.  Some studies, such as this one, suggest that thyme really does support brain health. 

Sumac: the Lemony Herb

One of the main ingredient in za'atar is the ground spice sumac (or sumaq).  My American guests sometimes balk at this -isn't sumac a poisonous weed, like poison ivy or poison oak?  As it turns out, the word sumac encompasses 250 flowering plants in the genus Rhea, which does in fact include poison oak, poison ivy and poison sumac, all of which can cause an itchy inflamed rash.  However, the Rhus coriaria, the sumac tree grown most commonly in Palestine, is not poisonous.  Its much-sought after ruddy red-brown berries are collected, dried, and ground down to a powder, and used in many traditional recipes, dating back to biblical times.  (From Food at the Time of the Bible, by Miriam Vamoush)

What does sumac taste like?  Sumac has a bright, acidic, lemony flavor, and lends a tartness to foods that tantalize the Arab palate.  An herb that tastes like lemon?  It's true!  And my, how Arabs love their lemons.  Fresh lemons are used in almost every meal - mixed into dressings, squeezed over soups and salads, poured over meats . . . perhaps you have noticed this.  But lemons are actually a New World food, unavailable to those who lived in ancient Palestine.  Instead, they used sumac to impart that lemony flavor.  Sumac is a spice in its own right, used to flavor many traditional Arab dishes, particularly one of my favorites - musachan - a chicken dish drenched in olive oil and sumac and served over bread. 

Where to Find Za'atar

You can, of course, make za'atar - my mother does - but if you are new to it, it is probably simpler to just purchase the spice blend.  You can find it in larger grocery stores, or at Middle Eastern grocers or online.  To make za'atar, combine:

1/4 cup ground thyme
1/4 cup ground sumac
1/4 cup sesame seeds
1 tsp sea salt

What to Try with Za'atar

* Dip your Arabic bread into olive oil, and then into za'atar.
* Spread labani (yogurt cheese) onto slices of bread, add sliced tomatoes or cucumbers, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with za'atar.
* Drizzle olive oil and sprinkle za'atar into a the pocket of Arabic brea.  Fry an egg in olive oil and slide into the bread for a to-go breakfast.
* Melt a mild cheese onto a slice of bread, top with tomato slices and a sprinkle with za'atar.
* Make a paste of olive oil and za'atar and spread on the top of a loaf of bread before you bake it.

Related recipes: 

*Zayt-and-Za'atar Sourdough Crackers

*Za'atar Bread, or Mana'eesh

*Spotlight on Ancient Herbs: Za'atar and Sumac

*Middle Eastern Breakfast Bowl: Za'atar Potato Hash with Fried Egg


  1. Hi! I've just discovered your blog... Linked to you through your oatmeal cookie recipe shared on the Food Renegade site. You write so well and I truly smiled reading this post... I've been so in love with sumac this year! One of my favourite simple ways to use it is sprinkled on buttery popcorn with dill and sea salt.
    I actually came to know sumac as a child in Canada where my Dad would take me out on nature walks and for seasonal foraging. There are a number of sumac varieties in N America that can be used as a spice and for teas. I have plans to take my kids out to hunt sumac this fall. Thanks for a lovely post! I'll be back. :)
    - Mariko

    1. Thank you for your kind words! Your popcorn recipe sounds really intriguing - I will have to try it. I also love your idea of foraging for sumac. I would need someone knowledgable to show me the edible varieties. . . that would be so much fun to do with my children! Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Lovely post, thank you! I recently read a book called "The Language of Baklava", written by a Jordanian-American. I became completely enamored by the food she described. I went out and bought za'atar and sumac as soon as I finished the book and I have loved experimenting with them since. I'll keep reading your blog!

    1. Thank you! I haven't read that book, but it sounds lovely. I am working on building up my collection of Arab cookbooks, so thank you for the recommendation. She must be a good writer to inspire you to go out and buy those spices. What have you enjoyed the most since you have been experimenting with them?

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  4. Sounds excellent ! Thanks for sharing this awesome recipe with us. I love to eat this. Zatar make the taste double.


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