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Would the real za'atar please stand up?

bonbon35 Mar 3, 2013 06:10 PM

Za'atar seems to mean many things...After scouring the city and finding it soldout most everywhere (I'm assuming other Vancouverites are on the Jerusalem craze as well), I finally bought a packet of za'atar, which is mainly thyme with a few other herbs like sumac and sesame. It tastes like regular thyme/oregano and seems quite unlike Yotam O.'s description as being pungent and sharp not out of place with the middle eastern smells of fire, sweat and goat's dung. I am wondering if Israeli za'atar is made from hyssop rather than thyme and this may account for the difference? Has anyone noticed a difference in types of za'atar or can explain what is the pungent type that is described in Jerusalem?

Bizarrely, I was excited to try the taste of flaming, sweaty dung...

Many thanks in advance!

  1. juster Mar 3, 2013 06:57 PM

    Huh. I have no experience of hyssop or Israrli zaatar specifically, but what I've had (when purchasing, I specify it as Jordanian zaatar if I need to, aka "the green kind") is mostly thyme, plenty of sumac, and sesame seeds. Not dung-y or sweaty... just tangy and herby... Maybe he was trying to be overly evocative with the description?

    Side note: my favorite use is for breakfast: take bit of pita, dunk in olive oil, dunk in zaatar, eat. From a Palestinian family we knew years (okay, decades now) ago.

    1. h
      Harters Mar 4, 2013 02:32 AM

      My local Middle Eastern shop stocks three varieties of za'atar - Jordanian, Palestinian and Syrian. I'm unsure of the precise differences between them - the staff speak very little English and we did some of the conversation in French (of which both of us only speak the odd words). Jordanian is more zesty - presumably sumac in there - so that's the one I bought. It's a large jar and I'll never finish it before the "best before" date so it'll be some time before I can try the others.

      I think Ottolenghi says somewhere that za'atar is the name for hyssop (or a hyssop tasting plant) in Palestine.

      1. c
        cresyd Mar 4, 2013 02:46 AM

        The description of "fire, sweat and goat dung" - is not one I'd personally describe to any of the za'atar I've ever had in Jerusalem. I'd really just describe that as poetic license. Now there are a few open air markets in Jerusalem that occasionally smell of fire, sweat and dung - but that's another issue.

        Sumac is not commonly included in za'atar here and is primarily composed of thyme, oregano, salt and sesame. Za'atar is also the word for fresh oregano.

        1. h
          HillJ Mar 4, 2013 05:48 AM

          I've only purchased za'atar from World Spice Merchants in Seattle (mail order) and it's an outstanding spice product; fresh and fragrant. They carry Israeli & Syrian blends. The list of individual spices that make up each blend are noted in the description page for each.


          1. JungMann Mar 4, 2013 08:38 AM

            Za'atar is a highly regional blend of herbs and seasonings. The Lebanese blend will feature a predominance of thyme, whereas the Syrian version might take on a brownish hue from pepper and cumin. Different blends and brands have different qualities. If you didn't like the version you bought, time to try another. FWIW, I make my own za'atar from thyme, oregano, sumac, sesame and pepper and used that blend for the recipes from "Jerusalem."

            1. v
              VitalForce May 12, 2013 06:31 PM

              Za'atar does seem to be very regional in its varieties. While the Jerusalem book is getting all the press and awards, I think a far more interesting Middle-Eastern cookbook from the past year is Salma Hage's "The Lebanese Kitchen," just in terms of recipes.

              For a delicious use of za'atar from neither of these books: heat up a naan, mix za'atar with virgin olive oil, perhaps some sumac and salt into a loose paste, then scrape it over the heated naan. Maybe include a fried egg, some cheese, etc. While not traditional, or even regional, the na'an is much tastier than a conventional pita in this instance, and without a need to bake the bread from scratch.

              7 Replies
              1. re: VitalForce
                Harters May 13, 2013 11:51 AM

                Even better than the naan idea, take a khobez (or any other eastern Med. flatbread) and top it with the oil/za'atar mix. Then put it in a hot oven for a minute. It crisps up beautifully. I always think of it as Palestinian pizza.

                1. re: Harters
                  cresyd May 13, 2013 11:33 PM

                  My favorite is to take the za'atar Palestinian pizza and dip it in labne.

                  1. re: cresyd
                    JungMann May 14, 2013 06:26 AM

                    Now we're approaching my typical breakfast. Half a pita toasted til crisp but not brown. Spread with labneh, sprinkle with za'atar, top with makdous. Hits all the major food groups before 9 o'clock. No labneh in the fridge this morning so I used lentil hummus instead.

                    1. re: JungMann
                      VitalForce May 14, 2013 05:56 PM

                      These various approaches all sound good. The makdous topping sounds a bit labour intensive. Do you make it as a preserve or buy it locally?

                      1. re: VitalForce
                        JungMann May 15, 2013 06:57 AM

                        I buy makdous. I know Arabs have been preserving eggplants stuffed with garlic, walnuts and red peppers in olive oil for hundreds of years, but I just wouldn't feel comfortable doing it at home without a pressure canner!

                      2. re: JungMann
                        cresyd May 15, 2013 04:05 AM

                        My preferred "big" breakfast is from a small market near where I work - a spinach and za'atar filled "pastry" far more similar to pita rather than phyllo dough. I like this with either labne or yogurt. A truly excellent way to start the day.

                    2. re: Harters
                      AmyH Jul 16, 2013 10:14 AM

                      That's my favorite way to enjoy za'atar, too. I haven't had it for ages. Maybe I'll pick up some flatbread on the way home!

                  2. b
                    BuildingMyBento May 13, 2013 11:32 AM

                    I buy it every now and then at Parrot Coffee in Sunnyside, Queens (NYC). The store sells a blend of Eastern European/Levant/Southwest Asian foodstuffs, but the za'atar seems to consistently contain sesame seeds, thyme and oregano, among other ingredients.


                    1. a
                      antimony May 14, 2013 05:12 AM

                      I find sumac to be a fairly sharp flavor -- in a good way -- maybe it's just a difference in perception?

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: antimony
                        JungMann May 14, 2013 06:28 AM

                        Sumac is definitely a sour flavor, though we might perceive how sharp its edges are differently. Another thread dealt with this topic at some length.

                      2. p
                        Phaedra Jul 16, 2013 10:10 AM

                        Had the same question as you regarding driving spice of za'atar. Hyssop in biblical scholar reference seems to be thought as origanum syriacum, implying a different herb from what I think of as hyssop in a botanical sense. All recipes I have seen cite thyme as the most commonly used herb with varying personal touches as described by other responders to your question.. Regardless, I love the different expressions of this seasoning and think of my friend who gifted me his Lebanese aunt's personal mix made from spices she gathered in Lebanon. .. Beautiful.

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