If you are like most people, you have a few favorite spices that you use over and over again. But there is nothing quite like expanding your world and the taste of your food, which is why we would like to introduce you to zatar or za’tar (pronounced zah-tahr), a spice-and-herb blend from the Middle East. It has an amazing and unique flavor that is aromatic, nutty and tangy all at the same time—with three main ingredients that all are good for you.
In Arabic, “zatar” means thyme. Traditionally, this spice blend is a combination of dried thyme (or other green herbs related to thyme such as marjoram and oregano), raw sesame seeds and dried sumac—ground-up red berries from the Middle Eastern variety of the plant Rhus coriaria. Sumac is unknown to most cooks in the US, but it is very popular in the Middle East. And it is the unusual combination of a seed, a green herb and a tart red berry that gives zatar its unique flavor.
Zatar is used throughout the Middle East—it is sprinkled on hummus…grilled chicken…mixed in with feta cheese…or combined with sliced tomato and onions. You also can add it to cous cous…salads…grilled chicken or fish…or cooked beans. Combined with oil, it makes a tasty paste for dipping bread.
To learn more about this delicious spice, our editors turned to Paula Wolfert, an expert on Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food and cooking and the author of eight cookbooks, including The Food of Morocco (Ecco), who not only uses zatar in many dishes, but also tells us how to make it…
WHAT MAKES ZATAR HEALTHY?
All three of the main ingredients in zatar contribute to its health benefits…
Thyme. This antioxidant has anti-inflammatory properties that benefit brain function and the heart.
Sesame seeds. These raw seeds contain calcium, copper and lignans, a type of phytosterol that can reduce blood cholesterol levels and boost immunity.
Sumac. If your only experience with “sumac” is poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix), rest assured that the spice comes from a different variety of the plant. The spice sumac is a burgundy red powder with a somewhat lemony flavor. (It often is recommended as a substitute for those who can’t eat lemon.) Sumac is an antioxidant—and is also known to soothe stomach upset.
TO BUY OR TO MAKE
You can make your own zatar (see recipes below) or buy it. Both zatar and the ingredients needed to make it are available at Middle Eastern food stores, many Whole Foods Markets and specialty food stores. You also can purchase them online from from Penzeys Spices (www.Penzeys.com) and The Spice House (www.TheSpiceHouse.com).
Buying zatar is easier than making it yourself. But one of the benefits of making it yourself is that you can alter the proportions of the ingredients to suit your taste. Here are two variations…
Aromatic and Tart Zatar
1⁄3 cup dried thyme
3 Tablespoons sumac
1½ teaspoons sesame seeds
Mix all ingredients. Makes about ½ cup.
Nutty and Crunchy Zatar
¼ cup dried thyme
2 Tablespoons sumac
1 Tablespoon sesame seeds
Mix all ingredients. Makes about ? cup.
Zatar Paste (to dip bread)
Combine 2 to 4 Tablespoons of zatar (either version above) with ¼ to ½ cup extra virgin olive oil, to taste.
Stuffed Mediterranean Breakfast Pita
In a bowl, combine three Tablespoons Greek yogurt or crumbled feta, two Tablespoons chopped tomato and one Tablespoon each chopped scallions and red onion. Mix in one to two Tablespoons zatar, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Spoon this mixture into a warm whole-wheat pita and serve immediately.