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Spice Hunting: Za'atar

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Cooking with Za'atar

Za'atar Rice Pilaf »

What exactly is za'atar? Besides a spice blend, a wild herb, a dip, a condiment, and a snacking equivalent of popcorn, it's an ancient cultural institution, a symbol of national identity, and a personal watermark. Za'atar represents what I love most about spices: it grants insight into the foodways of generations past and introduces us to people we may otherwise never meet. It also tastes really, really good.

What Is Za'atar?

Za'atar the spice blend is a mixture of dried herbs, sesame seeds, and sumac, and often salt, a centuries-old mixture dating back to the 13th century, at least. What those herbs are and how all those ingredients are proportioned vary from culture to culture and family to family. In much of the Middle East, za'atar recipes are closely guarded secrets, and there are also substantial regional variations. In Jordan, the za'atar is particularly heavy on the sumac, so it looks red. Lebanese za'atar may have dried orange zest; Israeli za'atar (adopted from Arab communities much like the American adoption of salsa) often includes dried dill. Unsurprisingly, these variations are a matter of extreme national pride.

There are some standards: the most common herbs are thyme and oregano, and they make up the bulk of the blend. Marjoram, mint, sage, or savory are also common. Za'atar was probably first made with wild hyssop or the eponymous herb za'atar, which are still used today, so much so that the Israeli government had to curtail wild hyssop harvesting to save the plant from extinction.

My favorite za'atar blend is heavy on the thyme and the sesame seeds, which lend deep nutty and woodsy accents. The sumac provides an acidic lift, a superb substitute for lemon juice. With a balance of floral herby notes and rich flavors, za'atar is a versatile everyday spice blend. You can buy za'atar in Middle Eastern markets (and increasingly, mainstream grocery stores), but it's best blended at home with recently dried herbs, where you have full control over what goes into your blend, and in what amounts.

How To Use Za'atar

Za'atar is most frequently used as a table condiment, dusted on food on its own, or stirred into some olive oil as a dip for soft, plush flatbreads. That spread is often applied to the bread before baking, which lends incredible depth of flavor to the herbs and sesame seeds. Za'atar also makes a superb dry rub for roast chicken or lamb, as well as on firm or starchy vegetables like cauliflower or potatoes.

In Lebanon, za'atar is most associated with breakfast, a cue well worth taking. Try dusting some on eggs, oatmeal, or yogurt (especially labne). Or add some to your next batch of lemon cookies—lemon, thyme, and sesame are a trio on par with tomato, basil, and mozzerella, perfect in sweet and savory foods.

Many people eat za'atar as-is, out of hand, and it's strangely addicting. When paired with popcorn, even more so. Za'atar's uses are practically limitless and as flexible as its ingredients. To get the most out of my za'atar, I fry it in oil with other aromatics to gain depth of flavor, and then add some more at the end to keep its herbal notes intact. But anything goes with this stuff. Fairy dust wishes it tasted this good.

About the author: Max Falkowitz is a proud native of Queens, New York. He'll do just about anything for a good cup of tea and enjoys long walks down the aisles of Chinese groceries.

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