In the most recent edition of Organic Gardener magazine, I’ve written about some of my favourite unusual culinary herbs one of which is za’atar. Za’atar can also be written as zaatar or zahtar. The za’atar that I’ve described is the perennial herb Origanum syriacum which is a typical oregano with small woolly, grey-green leaves. It grows well in an open sunny position and needs well-drained sandy loam soils. New plants can be grown from seed sown in spring, by taking cuttings or dividing clumps, also both in spring.
The source of the confusion around the name za’atar is twofold. The first is that there are several different closely related herbs that can also be called za’atar in different cultures as evidenced by it’s other common names of Syrian oregano, Syrian thyme, bible hyssop, Lebanese oregano and Palestinian za’atar.
The second area of confusion comes because there are several spice mixes also called za’atar. Some of these spice mixes use Origanum syriacum as an ingredient, but others, depending on their region of origin can use thyme (especially Thymus capitata), marjoram, calamint, savory and/or hyssop.
The herb za’atar has strongly fragrant leaves that are used in Levantine cuisine in particular but also throughout the Mediterranean region of the Middle East. It is used mainly in salads, and in dishes such as baba ganoush, falafel, dolma and quzi and in other meat dishes and sauces. It’s also drunk as a herbal tea.
The spice mix za’atar can be made up of one or more of several different herbs depending on where the mix originated. They may include dried leaves of any oregano (although the wild growing O. syriacum and O. vulgare are the most likely), marjoram, thyme, calamint, savory and hyssop. Ian Hemphill, in his excellent book Spice Notes, says ‘Like many spice blends, za’atar will vary considerably from region to region, with different areas having preferred proportions or even adding additional ingredients such as the leaves of sumac.’ One Palestinian za'atar mix includes caraway seeds. Ian adds that if you use finely chopped fresh leaves of any of these herbs, then the result can be deliciously different, but the mix should be used within a few days.
Za’atar spice mixes are traditionally made by combining the dried herb with toasted sesame seed and salt. Sumac is also often added. Proportions of dried herb to sesame seed to salt are about 8:2:1. So you could use 8 teaspoons of dried (but not powdered) herb to 2 of toasted sesame seed to 1 of salt. Mix it together with a spoon and sprinkle over potatoes (mashed, chips, roasted) towards the end of cooking or just before serving; or over grilled chicken pieces. Alternatively rub into butter and use to spread on slices of breadstick, that are then wrapped in foil and then baked.
More traditional uses see za’atar spread over pita bread that has been dipped in oil. The bread is then baked. Or it can be spread over bread dough just before it is put in the oven. Or za’atar can be used in the same way as dukkah, with bread dipped in oil and then into the za’atar spice mix.
Za’atar plants or seed can be purchased from greenpatchseeds.com.au, herbcottage.com.au and drylands.org.au
By: Penny Woodward
First published: October 2020