A versatile spice blend

Photo by Word Ridden

Za’atar is an essential part of middle eastern cooking, and every cook has their own version. You can buy it pre-made, but why not put together your own blend, and customize it to suit your tastes? It’s easy, and once it’s done there’s so many ways to use it.

The word za’atar can be used to refer to a single plant, Origanum syriacum, or Syrian oregano (which many scholars believe is also the plant the Bible calls “hyssop.”) But since the most common use for za’atar the plant is to make za’atar the spice blend, it’s easy to see where the spice blend got its name.

So what’s in za’atar besides oregano? Toasted sesame seeds and salt are typical, and thyme is often used – in fact, some recipes replace the oregano with thyme, since it, too, grows wild in the region and has a similar flavour profile. Marjoram maybe included – not surprisingly, since it’s just a variety of oregano under a different name. (And to confuse things even further, in some areas, wild thyme is called za’atar, so the etymological wheel goes ‘round!) Toasted cumin or coriander can also be found in some versions.

Lebanese za’atar usually includes dry sumac. We’ve included in this version, because the bright, lemony notes of sumac counterbalance the earthiness of the herbs. If you really want to make a za’atar mix your own, try harvesting your own sumac at the cottage. Staghorn sumac, which grows wild all across Muskoka, is at its peak right now, before the heavy fall rains wash too much flavour from the berries. Picking the fruit is simple, although the process of drying and separating the berries from the sticks and other debris is labour-intensive. The directions are here. Or you can just buy dried sumac at the grocery store.

Once you’ve made your za’atar mix, it will keep for a year or more. But if you get a taste for it, you’ll find it won’t last that long. You can sprinkle za’atar on fish or lamb before you cook it, but it also serves as a finishing herb, sprinkled on food after it’s cooked to give it a flavour flourish.

Sprinkle it on cooked vegetables, or on warm buttery pita bread. It’s great on eggs or avocadoes, salad or popcorn. Labneh (a thick yoghurt) or Greek yoghurt sprinkled with za’atar and maybe a drizzle of olive oil makes an amazing dip for toasted pita crisps or raw vegetables.


1 tbsp. dried oregano

1 tbsp. ground coriander

1 tbsp. toasted sesame seeds

1 tbsp sumac

½ tsp salt

Optional: marjoram, cumin, chili flakes, thyme

Mix all ingredients and store in an airtight jar for up to a year.


Posted in Thoughts on Food.