|Herb of the Month: Za'atar|
by Chris Ellis, Staff Nutritionist
What is Za’atar?
It was a totally new word to me—it’s an herb and spice blend, and can be found alongside other seasonings and mixes. Even though some of you may be familiar with it, we decided it was well worth it to inform other Co-op shoppers who don’t know about it. Za’atar is available in a spice jar in the Bulk department, way down at the bottom far end, since it starts with the last letter of the alphabet, and perhaps this is one reason why it may be overlooked. It has a dark green or brownish color with specks of white from the sesame seeds that are a key part of the mix. I tasted it as is before I even started writing about it or using it in cooking—it has a mild saltiness with a lemon twist and a strong flavor of thyme and oregano. The sesame seeds give it a light crunch. Right away I imagined it would be a tasty blend to add to olive oil for dipping bread in, and I soon learned it is often used this way.
Za’atar has indeed been around a long time but not necessarily for many of us since it’s native to the Middle East region, far from New England. Its use dates back to ancient Egypt, where remains of za’atar were found in the tombs of Tutankhamun. It has also been reported as an ingredient of the “Royal Perfume” and used in ritual purity ceremonies of the Jewish people, though it is unclear if this was the same modern za’atar or another blend using some of the same herbs. It has been a staple in Arab cookery from medieval times until the present. Research indicates that it played an important role in food preparation in regions such as Egypt, Palestine, and Israel.
So now what is really in za’atar? There is an herb called wild za’atar that grows in the Middle East, also known as Lebanese or Syrian oregano, or holy or biblical hyssop. It had been reported that in Israel the wild variety was on the verge of extinction due to overharvesting, but a law was passed in 1977 to protect it along the West Bank and some other areas. The wild herb is different from the dry variety of this seasoning mix that we sell in the Bulk department, and the one that I am referring to in this article. Za’atar seasoning is a mixture of dried herbs: thyme, oregano, sumac, and salt. The blending of these herbs varies from one region to another, and some include other herbs or spices such as cumin, fennel, or cinnamon. Just to clarify, herbs are the dried edible leaves of plants, and spices are from the roots, bark, and seeds of plants. Za’atar not only differs from region to region but from one culture to another and from family to family.
Families often make up their own blend and their recipes are often well-guarded secrets. Thyme and oregano are two specific herbs used in most za’atar blends. The blend the Co-op sells in bulk contains thyme, canola oil, oregano, sumac, sesame seeds, and salt. The sumac provides the reddish hue and lemony essence to the mix and is in the same family as the sumac that grows here, but it is a different species. Thyme is a powerful anti-microbial agent, and the other herbs all contain many beneficial antioxidants such as thymol, quercetin, and carvacrol, which have all been shown to promote optimal health.
Za’atar seasoning can be used to flavor meats or vegetables, added to hummus or yogurt, or simply added to olive oil—you can then spread it on bread, or toast or bake it right in, which adds a great taste from the herbs, sumac, and sesame seeds. I also tried it in olive oil for adding to popcorn, which gave another whole depth of flavor. If you haven’t tried it yet, it’s well worth adding za’atar to your dietary repertoire, so check it out!!
Be sure to try our April Za'atar Recipe: Manoushe with Za'atar (Lebanese Herb Flatbread)!