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Would the real za'atar please stand up?

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!

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  1. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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

                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

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

                  1. re: cresyd

                    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

                      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

                        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

                        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

                      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. 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. 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

                        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. 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.