Zaatar – a popular and flavorful spice blend from the Middle East
Zaatar (or Za’atar) is a blend of different herbs commonly used in Middle Eastern cuisine. Adding a small amount of Zaatar adds a unique dimension to dishes, and can turn a very simple dish to an interesting one. It is believed that Zaatar helps improve immunity and enhances mental function, making it a popular choice in households with children. Many parents make sure that kids consume zaatar before leaving for exams in the morning, to help them remain extra alert during the examination. It is also known for it’s anti-oxidant properties.
Zaatar is made with sumac, dried thyme, marjoram, roasted sesame seeds, oregano and salt. The ratio may differ from country to country, and household to household, depending on availability of quality ingredients, taste preferences, and prices. Popular zaatar blends available in the UAE are Palestinian and Syrian. You may be find blends from other countries too – and the only way to really find out what works for you is to buy a little bit of each and try them out. And remember it the next time you go shopping!
The main ingredient in zaatar is sumac which gives a tartness in the blend. Some varieties also have cumin, coriander, and fennel. In India – sumac is available in bigger metropolitan cities, and can also be ordered via Amazon. There is no good substitute for sumac but if you don’t have it then you may try using dried lemon zest.
It works very well in the popular Middle Eastern flatbread- Zaatar Manakeesh. The zaatar spice mix is used in different types of dips too. You can mix it with olive oil and spread over bread, rice, soup, salads, or just sprinkle over hummus, labneh, soups and dips. It is also added to tea for flavoring (quite similar to the way tulsi / holy basil is added to chai in India). You can add it in stir fries (such as the simple and delicious – Zaatar Roasted Potatoes). You can be as experimental as you like. It doesn’t have a very strong taste and is hard to get wrong. It easily blends with most of the dishes.
If you are making your own spice mix then try to choose the freshest ingredients and then mix it in small quantities as fresh zaatar tastes significantly better. As a rule – do not buy this spice blend in bulk packaging. If you are making the blend at home – remember that the blend is coarse in texture and the sesame seeds are just pounded and added afterwards. Do not grind it in a fine powder.