Pronounce it: zar-uh-tar
This Middle Eastern and Levantine flavouring changes lives once tasted. It’s easy to understand why it is an essential part of daily life in so many countries.
The word can mean a simple herb or it can mean a mixture of herbs, sesame seeds and salt. Both za’atar sold as a herb and as the mixture might be only wild oreganum or wild thyme or a mixture of both. The ideal za’atar, whether a single herb or a mixture, gives a sharp, scented and lingering savoury taste that is fragrant, herbal and citric.
Some za’atar will also contain ground sumac, another invaluable flavouring once you know it: sumac is ground from many related varieties of smoky crimson berries and the powder gives a fascinating lemony tang that can be used freely in everything from fish cookery to salad dressing, to sprinkle onto fried or poached eggs or onto grilled or roasted fish, poultry or meats.
The combination of any za’atar herbs, sesame seeds, salt and ground sumac opens myriad culinary doors that seem to be universally welcoming and welcomed.
Increasingly available in specialty stores and online.
Choose the best
Personal preference alone can tell you, so check carefully to see the exact contents offered. Most people prefer to start with mixtures, with or without sumac.
It’s best to buy in small quantities to start your explorations.
The ground herbs will oxidise and change flavour quite quickly, especially if exposed to heat and air. Keep cool and dark, as you should with any ground herbs, and use as quickly as you can.
Za’atar’s greatest use is as a condiment scattered onto a little olive oil on hot flatbreads of many kinds. It’s hard to go wrong with it in any of its forms and a quick check through Middle Eastern cookery recipes will suggest many uses, both as a condiment and as an ingredient in cookery. Yotam Ottolenghi’s books are a rich vein to explore.