Zaatar (زعتر) is a mix of aromatic herbs and spices that are crushed with a mortar, popular in Middle Eastern countries.
What is the origin of the word zaatar?
The word zaatar (زعتر) literally means “thyme” in Arabic, which explains why it is sometimes called “thyme of Aleppo”.
It is also the generic term for plants of the Lamiaceae family such as thyme, hyssop, savory, oregano, marjoram or mint.
What is zaatar made of?
As with every blend, the proportions vary from one kitchen to another and from one market to another, but the most traditional variant of zaatar is usually made of thyme, hyssop, oregano, marjoram, savory, sumac and sesame seeds.
Some blends sometimes add calamint, aniseed, coriander powder, fennel seeds and/or cumin.
How to make, preserve and consume zaatar?
Zaatar can be bought in many Middle Eastern groceries. It is of course possible to make it at home and to then preserve it in different ways: sun-dried, with oil, or just with salt, as in the recipe presented here.
Once dried, simply crumble the herbs in between your hands and crush them in a mortar with a pestle.
It is very important to roast the sesame seeds over low to medium heat until their fragrance comes out. After that, crush half of them with the pestle.
For preservation, all you need is a small glass jar. It is important for it to be stored away from light and heat.
It can also be used to flavor a savory cake, or on diced feta cheese, vegetables, or roasted meat.
It can even be used on a pizza with onions or to flavor pan-fried potatoes.
It is very nice to use as a dry marinade for beef, chicken or lamb. It is also delicious on tomatoes with olive oil, with mozzarella for example or simply on soft-boiled or fried eggs.
What is the origin of zaatar?
It seems that zaatar was already known in ancient Egypt; traces of this condiment apparently have been found in the tomb of the Pharaoh Tutankhamun.
The Egyptians, Greeks and Romans already made good use of it to perfume their baths and to purify their apartments.
Even Pliny the Elder, in his writings, mentions zaatar as an ingredient of the royal ointment used by the kings of the Parthian Empire in the first century of our era.
In Jewish customs, the use of this spice blend was described in rituals of purification.
Indeed, in many writings, it is mentioned that the great Egyptian rabbi, Saadiah Gaon (10th century), the Andalusian chief rabbi Ibn Ezra (12th century), the famous Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon, known as Maimonides (12th century) and the Italian Rabbi Ovadiah ben Abraham, known as the Bartenura (fifteenth century) connected hyssop, the ezov (אזוב) in the Torah, to the Arabic word zaatar.
Specifically, zaatar was associated with ritual ceremonies of purity, such as the preparation of the ashes of the red heifer (Numbers 19 – 6) and the treatment of body contaminations (Leviticus 14: 4, 6, 51-52, and Numbers 20-18).
The Hebrews are also said to have used hyssop stems (ezov) to smear the blood of the Paschal sacrifice on the posts of their homes before leaving their slave lives behind, in Egypt.
King David refers to the purifying powers of zaatar in Psalm 51 -7: “Clean me with the zaatar ezov and I will be cleansed”.
In the New Testament (John 19 – 29), it is said that a sponge soaked in vinegar was placed on hyssop wood and lifted to Jesus’ lips as he was on the cross.
Much later, zaatar appears in the second century of our era in the Mishnah, in Judea, as an ingredient in foods.
In the twelfth century, Maimonides described the use of za’atar (צעתר in Hebrew) in the kitchen, writing that “the hyssop (ezov) mentioned in the Torah is the hyssop that people eat and with which they season their stews”.
Along with other spices or spicy salts, zaatar was used as a staple ingredient of Arabic cuisine during the Middle Ages.
What is hyssop?
Hyssop is a very ancient plant. It has long been cultivated for its expectorants, which are digestive, and of course later for use in cooking.
It is one of the main ingredients of zaatar.
Hyssop leaves and flowers can be used for different purposes:
- Therapeutic use: Dried leaves and flowers can be used to make an infusion. In herbal medicine, it is recommended for its therapeutic virtues against cough and some lung conditions such as bronchitis.
- Culinary use: It is an aromatic plant that can be used to garnish and perfume many culinary preparations. Its flowers can be picked to be added to salads, sauces or soups. Hyssop leaves and flowers can also be dried before being used as flavorings to perfume oils and vinaigrettes.
Its taste is similar to that of mint, but much stronger.
What are the benefits of zaatar?
This precious condiment, a staple of the Middle Eastern cuisine, embodies the benefits of many spices with strong therapeutic effects.
In the Middle East, it is thought that consumption of zaatar may allow for greater mental acuity while strengthening the body.
In addition to hyssop and its virtues, thyme, for example, has remarkable antiseptic, digestive and tonic properties; sesame is known as a valuable source of iron, calcium, magnesium, and potassium.
Marjoram is rich in vitamin C and is recommended as a treatment for migraines. Savory is an excellent intestinal disinfectant and is effective against lung diseases.
Sumac is a strong antioxidant and finally, hyssop acts as a diuretic, a disinfectant and as an expectorant, all while excelling against cystitis and respiratory diseases.
In the Middle East, zaatar is considered to have a multitude of health benefits.
In Lebanon, boys usually eat zaatar-flavored scones before exams to increase their focus.
All of the herbs that make up zaatar, once combined, also have many active agents and recognized therapeutic virtues:
- It is an excellent antiseptic and it has anti-infection properties.
- It provides a boost to the body, and to the mind.
- It soothes coughs and relieves sore throats.
- It promotes good blood circulation.
Try different combinations with this ever so popular zaatar. Learn how to make it yourself and invite its beautiful tangy notes in all your meals.
This recipe is validated by our expert in Iraqi cuisine Nawal Nasrallah. An award-winning researcher and food writer, Nawal is the author of the definitive cookbook on the Iraqi cuisine Delights from the Garden of Eden.
- 3 tablespoons dried thyme
- 3 tablespoons dried oregano
- 3 tablespoons dried marjoram
- 2 tablespoons dried hyssop
- 3 tablespoons dried savory
- 2 tablespoons sumac powder
- 2 tablespoons sesame seeds
- 1 teaspoon salt
- In a small skillet, roast the sesame seeds over low to medium heat, while stirring constantly, for 3 minutes, until their fragrance comes out. Set aside and let cool down completely.
- Add the thyme, oregano, marjoram, hyssop, savory, sumac and half of the sesame seeds into a mortar and rub them vigorously for 3 minutes between your hands.
- Using a pestle, crush the mix and reduce it into a coarse powder.
- Add the remaining sesame seeds and keep the mixture in a glass jar away from light and heat.
It is possible to use a blender or coffee grinder to crush the spice blend.