Za'atar: Wikis


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Za'atar, a blend of herbs, sesame seeds and salt

Za'atar (Arabic: زعتر‎, also romanized zaatar, za'tar, zatar, zatr, zahatar, zaktar or satar) is a generic name for a family of related Middle Eastern herbs from the genera Origanum (Oregano), Calamintha (Basil), Thymus vulgaris (Thyme ) and Satureja (Savory).[1] It is also the name for a condiment made from the dried herb(s), mixed together with sesame seeds, and often salt, as well as other spices.[2] Used in Arab cuisine since medieval times, both the herb and spice mixture are popular throughout the Middle East and Levant.[3][4]



Origanum syriacum

Written history lacks an early definitive reference to za'atar as a spice mixture, though unidentified terms in the Yale Babylonian Collection may be references to spice blends.[5] According to Ignace J. Gelb, an Akkadian language word that can be read sarsar may refer to a spice plant. This word could be attested in the Syriac satre, and Arabic za'atar (or sa'tar), from whence the Latin Satureia derives.[6] Satureia (Satureja) is a common name for satureia thymbra, a species of savory whose other common and ethnic names include, "Persian za'atar", "za'atar rumi" (Roman hyssop), and "za'atar franji" (European hyssop).[7][8].

According to Dioscorides, satureia capitata is another name for thymus capitatus, a species of wild thyme.[8] Also known as za'atar farsi (Arabic: "Persian za'atar"), it is found throughout the hills of the Levant and Mediterranean Middle East.[9] Thyme is said to be a plant, "powerfully associated with Palestine," and the spice mixture za'atar is common fare there.[10] Thymbra spicata, a plant native from Greece to Israel, has been cultivated in North America by Syrian and Lebanese immigrants for use in their za'atar preparations since the 1940s.[11]

Another species identified as "wild za'atar" (Arabic:za'atar barri) is Origanum vulgare, commonly known as European oregano, oregano, pot marjoram, wild marjoram, winter marjoram, or wintersweet.[12] This species is also extremely common in Israel and the Palestinian territories, and is used by Palestinians to make one local variety of the spice mixture.[13]

Other Latin names for the herbs called za'atar in Arabic include Origanum syriacum (also known as Bible hyssop, Syrian oregano and wild marjoram) and Origanum majorana (sweet marjoram).[14] Both oregano and marjoram are closely related Mediterranean plants of the Labiatae family, so it is unsurprising that they could be used interchangeably.[13]

Preparation and variations

Za'atar is generally prepared using ground dried thyme, oregano, marjoram, or some combination thereof, mixed with toasted sesame seeds, and salt, though other spices might also be added.[13] Traditionally, housewives throughout the Fertile Crescent, Iraq, and the Arabian peninsula made their own variations of za'atar, which was unknown in North Africa.[15] Recipes for such spice mixtures were often kept secret, and not even shared with daughters and relatives. This general practice is cited by Western observers of Middle Eastern and North African culinary cultures as one reason for their difficulties in determining the names of the different spices used.[15]

Some varieties may add savory, cumin, coriander or fennel seed.[16] One distinctively Palestinian variation of za'atar includes caraway seeds, while a Lebanese variety sometimes contains sumac berries, and has a distinct dark red color.[17][18] Like baharat (a typically Egyptian spice mix of ground cinnamon, cloves, and allspice or rosebuds) and other spice mixtures popular in the Arab world, za'atar is high in anti-oxidants.[18]

Za'atar, both the herb and the condiment, is popular in Armenia, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, and Turkey.[3][19][20]


Commercially prepared za'atar herb from Syria
Commercially prepared za'atar from Israel describing it both as "Hyssop" and "The Holy Hyssop"

There is evidence that a za'atar plant was known and used in Ancient Egypt, though its ancient name has yet to be determined with certainty.[21] Remains of thymbra spicata, one variety used in modern za'atar preparations, were found in the tomb of Tutankhamun, and according to Dioscorides, this particular species was known to the Ancient Egyptians as saem.[11][21]

Pliny the Elder mentions an herb maron as an ingredient of the Regale Unguentum ("Royal Perfume") used by the Parthian kings in the 1st century CE[22][23] Saadiah (d. 942), Ibn Ezra (d. circa 1164), and Maimonides (1135-1204) identified the ezov mentioned in the Hebrew Bible as the Arabic za'atar.[24] Along with other spiced salts, za'atar has been used as a staple in Arab cuisine from medieval times to the present.[25][26]

Za'atar has historical significance for Palestinians, some of whom see the presence of za'atar in a house as a signifier denoting that it's a Palestinian home.[27] For Palestinian refugees, plants and foods such as za'atar also serve as signifiers of the house, village, and region from which they hailed.[28]

Israeli Jews were largely exposed to za'atar through their visits to Arab bakeries.[29] Some Jews who immigrated to Israel from Iraq already knew of and used the spice mixture in their traditional cuisine.[30] It is now considered by Israel to be, "an integral element in Israeli cuisine."[29] Some Israeli companies market za'atar commercially as "hyssop" or "holy hyssop". Hyssopus officinalis is never found in the wild in Israel, but Origanum vulgare is extremely common.[13]

Ecologists state that plants like wild za'atar were on the verge of extinction in Israel due to over-harvesting, and 1977 Israeli legislation declared it a protected species.[29][31] Violators face heavy fines. For Arab citizens of Israel, who have picked wild herbs since ancient times, learning from their ancestors how to preserve the yield of future years, the law seems "almost anti-Arab."[31] There is a similar Israeli military administration ban on gathering wild thyme or za'atar in the West Bank, and za'atar plants were confiscated from Palestinians at IDF checkpoints in 2006.[32][33]

Culinary use

Manakish bi za'atar

Traditionally, za'atar is made by drying the wild herb under the sun, which is then blended with salt, sesame seeds and sumac.[32] It is consumed principally with unleavened Arabic bread (pita) dipped in olive oil and then the za'atar.[32] Mixing the olive oil and za'atar together makes a spread known as za'atar-wu-zayt or zeit ou za'atar (zeit or zayt, meaning "oil" in Arabic).[17] The combination can be spread on a dough base and baked as a bread, in which case it is called manaeesh bi zaatar.[34] In the Middle East, ka'ak (a soft sesame seed bread, known as bagele in Hebrew), is sold in bakeries and by street vendors with za'atar to dip into or with a za'atar filling.[35][36][37]

Za'atar can be used as a seasoning for meats and vegetables or be sprinkled onto a plate of hummus.[38] It is also eaten with labneh (yogurt drained to make a tangy, creamy cheese), and bread and olive oil for breakfast, most commonly in Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon, as well as other places in the Arab world.[10][27][39] The Lebanese speciality shanklish, dry-cured balls of labneh, can be rolled in za'atar to form its outer coating.[20]

Fresh za'atar, the herb itself, rather than the condiment, is also used in a number of dishes. Borek is a common bread pastry that can be stuffed with various ingredients, including za'atar.[20] A salad made of fresh za'atar leaves (Arabic: salatet al-zaatar al-akhdar) is also popular throughout the Levant.[10] The recipe is a simple one consisting of fresh thyme, finely chopped onions, garlic, lemon juice, olive oil and salt.[10]

A traditional beverage in Oman consists of za'atar steeped in boiling water to make an herbal tea.[40]

Medicinal use

In Lebanon, there is a belief that this particular spice mixture makes the mind alert and the body strong. For this reason, children are encouraged to eat a za'atar sandwich for breakfast before an exam.[41] Palestinians also remind their children in the morning before sending them off to school that eating za'atar for breakfast will make them smarter.[32] Maimonides (Rambam), a medieval rabbi and physician who lived in Spain, Morocco, and Egypt, prescribed za'atar for its health advancing properties.[42][citation needed]


  1. ^ Allen, 2007, p. 237.
  2. ^ Aliza Green. "Za'atar". CHOW. Retrieved 2008-03-09. 
  3. ^ a b Rozanne Gold (July 20, 1994). "A Region's Tastes Commingle in Israel". The New York Times.'atar&st=cse. 
  4. ^ Florence Fabricant (October 28, 1992). "Food Notes". The New York Times.'atar&st=cse. 
  5. ^ Kaufman, 2006, p. 29.
  6. ^ Gelb, 1956, p. 74.
  7. ^ Allen, 2007, p. 230.
  8. ^ a b Faculté de Médecine de Paris, 1818, p. clxxviii.
  9. ^ Basan, 2007, p. 196.
  10. ^ a b c d The Poetry Society, 2006, p. 5.
  11. ^ a b Gardner, 2004, p. 326.
  12. ^ "Multilingual Multiscript Plant Name Database: Sorting Origanum names". Michel H. Porcher, University of Melbourne. Retrieved 2009-08-28. 
  13. ^ a b c d Philologos (April 28, 2006). "Za'atar: On Language". Forward. Retrieved 2009-08-28. 
  14. ^ Seidemann, 2005, p. 365.
  15. ^ a b Heine, 2004, p. 69.
  16. ^ Roberts, 2000, p. 84.
  17. ^ a b "Recipes of the West Bank Olive Harvest". November 21, 2007. Retrieved 2008-03-14. 
  18. ^ a b Nabhan, 2004, p. 88-89.
  19. ^ Jennifer Bain (August 15, 2007). "The zing of za'atar". The Toronto Star. Retrieved 2009-08-28. 
  20. ^ a b c Savill and O'Meara, 2005, p. 273.
  21. ^ a b Manniche, 1989, p. 150.
  22. ^ This is usually rendered as English marum (defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as Thymus mastichina or Teucrium marum), but Dalby interprets this as Origanum syriacum and translates it as zatar; Dalby, 2000, p. 189.
  23. ^ Dalby, 2002, p. 108.
  24. ^ Isser, 1976, p. 99.
  25. ^ Basan, 2007, p. 27.
  26. ^ Dorothea Bedigian (September 2004). "History and Lore of Sesame in Southwest Asia" (abstract). Economic Botany 58 (3): 330–353. doi:10.1663/0013-0001(2004)058[0330:HALOSI2.0.CO;2]. 
  27. ^ a b Marin and Deguilhem, 2002, p. 69.
  28. ^ Lien and Nerlich, 2004, pp. 148-149.
  29. ^ a b c "Hyssop: Adding Spice to Life in the Middle East". Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 1998-07-01. 
  30. ^ Goldman, 2006, p. 159.
  31. ^ a b "Forbidden Fruit". Retrieved 2008-03-14. 
  32. ^ a b c d Swedenburg, 2003, p. 59.
  33. ^ "The Palestinians: It is the little things that make an occupation" (PDF). Economist magazine. 20 January 2007. p. 64. 
  34. ^ Carter et al., 2004, p. 68.
  35. ^ Lebanese Writers Offer Alternate Views of Beirut, Jacki Lyden, March 5, 2005, NPR
  36. ^ A Short History of the Bagel, Joan Nathan, Slate Magazine, Nov. 12, 2008
  37. ^ Cheshin et al., 2001, p. 14.
  38. ^ Joan Nathan (November 9, 1996). "Diversity in the dining room helps ring in Israel's new year". Houston Chronicle. Retrieved 2008-03-09. 
  39. ^ Ray, 2004, p. 154.
  40. ^ Marshall Cavendish, 2007, p. 309.
  41. ^ Aglaia Kremezi. "Zaatar". Recipe Zaar. 
  42. ^ Za'atar Pita Bread recipe


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