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Za’atar, Sumac and a Recipe

Za'atar, A Spice MixOne of the memorable successes of my Eid menu (and yes I am still talking about Eid ul Fitr, although in the intervening period since…there has already been another Eid, Eid ul Adha) is finally making my own za’atar.  Za’atar (zahtar, Arabic ????)* is a Middle Eastern spice mix, that like any other spice “mix” may be a bit dependent on the whims of the mixer! Za’atar is commonly used as an accompanimient to bread – dip bread in oil, dip in za’atar…mmm…enjoy. If you’re in Trinidad, Adam’s Bagels up in Maraval sells its own toasted pita with za’atar (and also a whole lot of other essentials for those of us who have Syrian family demands)… I have also had a dish in Battimamzelle restaurant in Coblentz Inn, Cascade (when it was Chef Khalid Mohammed) made with za’atar, shankleesh and sumac oil (talk about representing the Syrian/Lebanese community in one dish!). If you remember my Middle Eastern post, I mention shankleesh, which is a strong soft white Syrian cheese that Mom craves, which is rolled into a ball and covered with za’atar.

Abu Khalid Fa'toushAccording to Wikipedia, za’atar i’s generally a combination of ground dried herbs such as oregano, thyme and marjoram, with toasted sesame seeds and salt. And then there’s the sumac. Which isn’t necessarily found in all varieties – Wikipedia says it’s a Lebanese addition, perhaps. Sumac is used in the Middle East and in the Mediterranean as spice to add some sourness or tangy taste, hint of citrus, to dishes. It’s found as a ground red (or dark purple) spice and people use it as a seasoning in all kinds of dishes, or just over a salad (see salad at right which we had in Saudi Arabia last year after the Hajj). I wanted my za’atar sour-ish, so I wanted the sumac version.

So to get back to the sumac. We bought some when we went to Hajj last year. We weren’t entirely sure what we were looking for, but in a trip to one of the big stores (a Bin Dawud) we looked all throughout the spice counter just to see what they sold (such big spice counters!). In addition to our trying to figure out what was good saffron (and that is yet another story we haven’t told**), we saw this huge tub behind the counter with a reddish ground spice. Hmm…we asked what it was. The guy looked confused…confused that we were asking I think, he seemed to understand but not speak English but was most likely wondering who on earth doesn’t know what sumac is? After a few tries, with the salesperson becoming increasingly amused we figured it must be sumac and bought up a big bag (might have been a pound…it’s light stuff, but the deciding how much to buy further delighted the man behind the counter I am sure.

So this Eid I had sumac. I had sesame seeds. I even had dried oregano and thyme. Za’atar was my destiny. Za’atar has a complex flavour – nuttiness from the toasted sesame seeds (which is enhanced if you use a little geera/cumin like I did, the tang from the sumac and the thyme and oregano rounding out the overall depth. In addition to dipping some fresh bread (of any kind, doesn’t have to be pita) into this, I’ve used it for chicken, in pasta, baked on a flat bread/pizza dough…possibilities abound.
Za'atar, A Spice Mix

ZA’ATAR RECIPE (so easy)

  • 1/4 cup sesame seeds (toasted)
  • 2 tbs dried thyme
  • 2 tbs dried oregano
  • 1 tbs sumac (or a bit more)
  • 1 tbs geera (cumin)

I left out salt, since I figured I could add that to taste depending on need and use of the za’atar, but if you are making a batch for a specific use, go ahead and add the salt – about 1 tsp.

Toasting sesame seeds is great, because I love the smell and the magic of seeing the shiny goldenness appear – but be very careful, since it goes from a hint of gold to black very vast. The seeds are very small after all.  I used a small non-stick pan, stirred frequently, and when many started to get shiny and golden (even if still lots of white) I turned off the heat and kept stirring in the pan till they were evenly brown.

You could just mix all ingredients together, or do as I did,  and zap them briefly in my coffee grinder. Which doesn’t really grind tiny sesame seeds, but everything gets mixed together very evenly.

Also…those amounts up there – VERY subjective. You might want more sumac, or less thyme. Or no cumin at all.  Add marjoram. Play around with the amounts. If you don’t have access to sumac, add some lemon salt or lime/lemon zest for the sourness (see Arabic Bites, a great blog by two sisters, for a recipe for Za’atar and Arabic Pizza (manosha).

For Eid, I did a chicken kebab inspired dish, using lots of za’atar, that was apparently a hit even for fussy pre-teens. And more recently I added it to some whole wheat  pasta and that was just lovely. I have no photos of these meals, but will post the chicken recipe soon enough. When I was in Trinidad for Eid ul Adha last month, Lilandra and I made pizza and used one of the pizzas as a za’atar flatbread. Yum.


* A quick word as to pronounciation. Lilandra and I were recently shocked to hear Mario Batali and Alton Brown mangling this word on Iron Chef America (old episode I guess, can’t remember the secret ingredient) with variations given and ALL wrong. It is not pronounced zaTAH or zaTARR… Stress the first syllable, ZAHtar and if you want to get technical, the Arabic has an ‘ayn in the middle, which gives a in-the-back-of-your-throat vowel sound and hence the apostrophe in some spellings to indicate it’s like za-ahtar.

** The saffron story – I started to write it here, and decided that perhaps I should post on our much-neglected Hajj blog!

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15 Comments so far (Add 1 more)

  1. maybe there is an alternate pronunciation and alternate spelling in italian? who knows

    regardless, as much as i love alton, i’ve never taken him as my pronunciation guide! :)

    2. Lilandra on December 20th, 2009 at 3:23 am

    3. Lilandra on December 20th, 2009 at 3:23 am
  3. Hmmm…zatar also tastes good in eggs….

    4. Lilandra on December 20th, 2009 at 3:24 am
  4. I have a friend, a Trini, who lived and studied in Saudi Arabia on an Islamic scholarship some years ago. When he finally returned to Trinidad his friends had to try various Saudi/Arab dishes which he cooked sometimes not too well, but Za’atar was one he did very well :) Can you get sumac in Trinidad?

    5. aka_lol on December 21st, 2009 at 7:15 am
  5. Can you also get Za’atar to buy already made? We used to sprinkle Za’atar on almost anything including mango chow to add a different flavor. He even served it with pumpkin and dosti roti once.

    6. aka_lol on December 21st, 2009 at 7:19 am
  6. hey aka – za’atar may be available in Adam’s Bagels on Saddle Road, Maraval – they have a variety of supplies including ready-made items like those za’atar pita chips, shankleesh, their own baba ganoush and hummus etc. I used to go there regularly to pick up stuff for home when I still worked in POS. I had never seen sumac though…but you can try lime zest for an approximation of the tanginess maybe.

    7. Chennette on December 21st, 2009 at 10:38 am
  7. I will let you know because if all goes well I should be in the Adam’s Bagel area tomorrow.

    8. aka_lol on December 21st, 2009 at 1:30 pm
  8. excellent. ask them about my commission while you’re there 😉

    9. Chennette on December 21st, 2009 at 3:04 pm
  9. get shankleesh!!
    i want shankleesh…*sniffle*

    10. Lilandra on December 21st, 2009 at 9:48 pm
  10. I have sumac that I bought from a Middle Eastern store while on my travels this year and am definitely going to try this Zatar Recipe.

    Happy Holidays!

    11. Cynthia on December 25th, 2009 at 9:55 am
  11. Hi Cynthia! Hope you enjoyed the season! When you try out the za’atar, just keep in mind the “recipe” is just a suggestion :-) as to proportions, so experiment for your taste.

    12. Chennette on December 29th, 2009 at 11:36 am
  12. well happy new year 2010 my internet was down i am so sorry for the lives in haiti it is a really sad moment for people over there especially for children who are left orphans.

    13. yasmin ramsingh on January 16th, 2010 at 6:40 pm
  13. I got myself some za’atar this winter and just made some excellent baked chicken with it last week (post yet to come). Your recipe for freshly made za’atar must have been even better!!


    14. Miri on March 22nd, 2010 at 11:06 am
  14. Hi Miri – that sounds great – I am out of za’atar now and need to refresh – I kept adding it to my pasta and grilled chicken and shrimp. Look forward to your post!

    15. Chennette on March 22nd, 2010 at 12:52 pm

    19. Carol Cook on April 29th, 2017 at 11:21 pm

4 Trackbacks

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    […] loves Rose Levy Beranbaum’s recipe for pizza so much that we sprinkled zatar seasoning on it last time we made and had zatar bread. The only thing missing was the shankleesh […]

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  3. […] crust also makes a great flatbread – when we topped it with just za’atar, Mom said it reminded her of the khoubz (or Syrian bread) she grew up […]

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