Mixing Spices: All About Za’atar

Next week, za’atar spices up our Middle Eastern bowl of shrimp, green beans, cherry tomatoes and couscous. Vegetarians last devoured the spice as a sprinkling atop our socca, or chickpea flatbread.

It’s pretty. It’s popular. Its name starts with a z. But what is za’atar?

First off, za’atar refers to a varietal of wild thyme  that grows in the Middle East. Second, za’atar is also a spice blend eaten in Middle Eastern countries, especially popular in Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan.

Cooks use za’atar for seasoning meats and other main courses, but the most popular form of consumption is as a dry dip for bread. Vendors sell the mix in little paper cones, along with fresh bread for dipping. If you try this method at home, we definitely recommend that your bread make a pitstop in olive oil to help the za’atar stick to it.

Each Middle Eastern region–even each household–has its own mix for za’atar. At the most basic, za’atar contains thyme, sesame seeds, sumac, and some salt, but some traditions have the cook throw in pistachios, turmeric, or hazelnuts, according to Heidi of 101Cookbooks.

As you can imagine, the thyme offers a wonderful earthy herbiness. To that, sesame seeds bring their rich nuttiness. Sumac, made by grinding the dried berries from the sumac shrub, contributes a slightly sour, citrus-like flavor to the mix, with a similar effect on the final dish as a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. Salt, of course, brings out each of the individual flavors.

We grind together these ingredients in the fresh za’atar mix we use in our shrimp and socca. For our Blue Apron touch, we throw in some oregano for some added earthiness. If you have any za’atar left over from your meals, try sprinkling it on your morning toast, half an avocado, roasted chicken, or a simple green salad. We’ll be back to demystify some of our other spice mixes soon!