Sunday, April 27, 2014

Za'atar: Jewel of Middle Eastern Cuisine

Many years ago, while working in the kitchen of a family-owned Lebanese restaurant in Portland, Oregon, I would watch the owner as he whipped up a heavenly flatbread that was sprinkled generously with a strange mix of spices, before being baked in the wood oven. He kept this aromatic blend in a cherished ceramic pot in the kitchen and told me that in his country it was known as "Za'atar".

What exactly is Za'atar? 
Za'atar (Arabicزَعْتَر‎ , also known as zaatarza'tarzatarzatr, zattrzahatar
zaktar or satar, is a generic name for a family of related Middle Eastern herbs. These include Origanum (oregano), Calamintha (basil thyme), Thymus (thyme), and 
Satureja (savory). 

Za'atar is also the name for a condiment made from the dried herb(s), mixed with sesame  seeds,  dried sumac, and often salt, as well as other spicesBoth the herb and spice mixture are popular throughout the Middle East, including Armenia, Iran, Palestine, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Libya, Lebanon, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey and Morocco. In many families, unique blends are passed down from mother to daughter.

Will the real Za'atar please stand up?

Each country has its own unique blend that can vary widely in taste and color. Dried sumac, which has a tangy lemon flavor and deep red color, is especially common in Jordanian za'atar blends. Syrian za'atar is usally brownish in color, due to pepper and cumin. Lebanese may add dried orange zest for breakfast dishes, while Israeli blends may include dried dill. My personal favorite blend includes plenty of thyme, sumac and sesame seeds for a tangy, nutty taste.  

Healing properties

Like many spice mixtures in the Arab World, za'atar is high in anti-oxidants, which help prevent cancer and heart disease, among other illnesses. In the 12th century, the Spanish Jewish philosopher Maimonides is said to have prescribed it to his patients to treat a variety of ailments. Modern studies have concluded that he had good reason for this. Sumac is full of flavonoids, and thyme and oregano are packed with thymol (an essential oil), which has antioxidant, anticeptic and fungicide properties. 

Besides the health benefits, it is an extremely versatile condiment and can be sprinkled on just about any savory dish, including bread, hummus and other dips, meat marinades, soups, stews, etc

Za'atar's uses are practically limitless and as flexible as its ingredients!

So, why not experiment with this versatile spice blend into your kitchen?
Here are some ideas to get you started...

Make your own Za'atar blend:

Tasty recipes:

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