Tangy, nutty, herbaceous—za’atar pairs well with many foods. But before we get into the details of how to use this dynamic and delicious spice blend, there’s some clarification needed for the word itself.
“Za’atar” is the Arabic word for thyme, and it’s used for both the name of a wild plant and the spice mixture itself. This can be confusing for some spice hunters. In addition to herbs, a standard za’atar blend includes roasted sesame seeds, dried sumac, and often salt. The ratio of these ingredients varies depending on the household and the region it’s in—the blend is used throughout the Middle East in Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, and Syria. In fact, just as with ras hanout, a Moroccan spice blend, or Indian curry blends, many families have a tightly guarded recipe for za’atar.
Where I live, the za’atar mixture most readily encountered in Middle Eastern markets consists of mostly thyme, with smaller quantities of sesame seeds and sumac. Sumac, which comes from the tart red fruit of a Middle Eastern shrub, is dried and ground to a coarse, deep red powder. It’s responsible for that tangy, tart-lemony flavor you find in za’atar. Other than these core constituents, you might come across some minor variations when it comes to a za’atar mixture, such as the addition of ground cumin.
So what does one do with za’atar? A better question would be: What does one not do with za’atar? It’s incredibly versatile: Rub it on red meat, poultry, fish, or roasted vegetables (such as winter squash, eggplant, potatoes, or carrots); sprinkle it onto rice or your favorite salad (such as fattoush salad); incorporate it into dressings, marinades, or eggs; stir it into yogurt or labneh or hummus; make za’atar flatbread (Lebanese man’oushe); or simply mix za’atar in with a good amount of extra-virgin olive oil and dunk away with a crusty baguette.
ZA’ATAR SPICE BLEND
You can find za’atar at Middle Eastern grocery stores or spice houses (Kalustyan’s is a good source). Or make your own blend with four simple ingredients: dried thyme, sumac, sesame seeds, and salt. From there, it’s just a matter of pounding everything together with a mortar and pestle or spice grinder. Feel free to adjust the quantities, perhaps adding a little more sesame seed or sumac as you like.
½ cup dried thyme
3 to 4 tablespoons sumac
½ to 1 teaspoon kosher salt
¼ cup toasted sesame seeds
1. Use a mortar and pestle or spice grinder to finely grind the thyme, sumac, and salt. Stir in the toasted sesame seeds.
2. Store in an airtight glass container in a cool, dark place. The mix will keep for several months.
ZA’ATAR ROASTED CHICKEN
This Middle Eastern–inspired whole roast chicken marinated in a combination of olive oil, crushed garlic, za’atar, and fresh lemon will be your new go-to chicken dish. Halfway through the cooking time, brush the chicken with a bit of pomegranate molasses, which adds a pleasant tartness to this already flavorful and winning combination of flavors.
1 (3½- to 4-pound) whole chicken
¼ cup olive oil
4 garlic cloves, crushed to a paste with a garlic press, microplane, or side of a chef’s knife
4 tablespoons za’atar
Juice of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
1. Place the chicken in a shallow bowl.
2. Combine the olive oil, garlic, za’atar, lemon juice, and salt in a bowl. Whisk to combine. Pour the marinade over the chicken and rub all over. Marinate overnight in the refrigerator.
3. Preheat the oven to 400ºF. Place the chicken in a roasting pan. Roast for 30 minutes. Reduce the heat to 350ºF. Brush the chicken all over with the pomegranate molasses and continue to roast, another 20 to 30 minutes, until an instant-read thermometer reads 165ºF when inserted into the thickest part of the thigh without touching bone.
4. Remove from the oven and let rest 10 minutes before carving and serving.
VEGETABLES WITH ZA’ATAR-SPICED LABNEH
Labneh is a Middle Eastern strained yogurt (similar to Greek yogurt) but thicker, smoother, and slightly more tangy in flavor. My favorite way to enjoy it is to spread some on a plate, sprinkle with fresh herbs (such as parsley and mint), za’atar, and sumac (plus paprika or chile if you like), and then drizzle with a healthy dose of good-quality extra-virgin olive oil. Serve with fresh vegetables and pita/flatbread. It’s so simple and easy to prepare but packed with layer upon layer of flavor.
1 cup full-fat labneh
1 large garlic clove, grated on a microplane or crushed with a garlic press
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
2 tablespoons chopped mint
2 teaspoons za’atar
1 teaspoon sumac
1 teaspoon chile flakes or paprika
Extra-virgin olive oil
Handful of pomegranate seeds
Handful of chopped pistachios
Handful of olives
1 bunch of radishes
1 cucumber, thinly sliced
1 medium tomato, sliced into wedges
Pita or flatbread for serving
1. Mix the labneh and crushed garlic. Spread the labneh on a plate. Top with parsley, mint, za’atar, sumac, and chile flakes. Drizzle generously with olive oil. Top the labneh with pomegranate seeds and chopped pistachios if you like (highly recommended).
2. Serve with an assortment of olives, raw vegetables (such as radishes, cucumbers, tomatoes) and pita/flatbread for dipping in the labneh.
ZA’ATAR ROASTED POTATOES
Who doesn’t like roasted potatoes? This combination of za’atar and smoky paprika only makes them that much better. Oh, and feel free to dip them in the labneh as well.
1 pound baby potatoes
3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons za’atar
1 teaspoon hot smoked paprika
Salt to taste
1. Preheat the oven to 400ºF.
2. Place the potatoes in a bowl. Add the olive oil, za’atar, paprika, and salt. Toss to combine.
3. Spread the potatoes out on a baking sheet in a single layer. Roast until crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, about 30 minutes.