In the Western herb world, za’tar used to be a well-kept secret, known only to the cognoscenti and those living in ethnic pockets in the larger cities. But to millions of people in the Middle East, za’tar (pronounced ZAH-tur with a glottal stop after the first syllable) is the name of a well-known blend of spices and herbs, commonly mixed with olive oil and baked into the crust of flat, round pita bread. This simple fare has been immensely popular for centuries, if not millennia. However, the herb that flavors this blend is also called za’tar. And as if that weren’t confusing enough, in the Middle East, the name za’tar is bestowed upon one of several quite different plants, the choice depending on what other herbs are growing locally.
• Jo Ann's Favorite Pita
I became acquainted with the za’tar herb(s) inadvertently when a friend in Israel sent me seeds of tea hyssop (Micromeria fruticosa), an attractive, shrubby member of the mint family. Its leaves are soft, downy, pointed, almost heart-shaped, and the stems are topped by conelike white flower heads. Tea hyssop is similar in its blooming habit to the date palm; in fact, in the Middle East, it is sometimes called date palm. In Hebrew, the word for hyssop is ezov, and the Arabic equivalent is za’tar.
In looking for information about this herb, I was plunged into the world of Biblical botany, the study of plants mentioned in the Bible. In Tree and Shrub in Our Biblical Heritage (Ne’ot Kedumim, Israel, 1984) by Nogah Hareuveni, I found a photograph of my tea hyssop and learned that Talmudic sages, c. 300 B.C.E. to 500 C.E., had dismissed this herb as a “false hyssop”—not the true hyssop or ezov mentioned throughout the Bible. And which plant is the true hyssop? Hareuveni’s answer is indirect: “Not ezovion (Teucrium polium), not blue hyssop (Lavandula stoechas), not the wild hyssop (Micromeria fruticosa), and not the Roman hyssop (Satureja thymbra), but only the true hyssop that bears no descriptive name.”
Over centuries of hot debate among authorities, many quite different plants have been advanced as the true Bible hyssop. The European hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis), a shrubby, narrow-leaved, aromatic member of the mint family, is still widely touted in North America as the true Bible hyssop, but it does not fit the ancient references and is not native to the Middle East. Other candidates have included several kinds of moss, because these plants “spring from the wall” as described in 1 Kings 4:33. But these nominations are based on a misleading translation; “wall” in the context of the original Scriptures suggests a plant that grows between walls of rocks, as on rocky ground. Another contender, and one that does grow on rocky ground, is the thorny caper bush (Capparis spinosa), whose flower buds are pickled to make the popular, pungent condiment. But this plant also does not fit many of the Biblical references, nor does it have wide application in Arabic folklore.
The "True" Za'tar Herb
The plant which most precisely fits the ancient descriptions, all the Biblical references, and Arabic folklore and use is Majorana syriaca (formerly Origanum syriacum or O. maru), another shrubby mint with hairy stems which grows about 21/2 feet tall and bears dense spikes of small, pure white flowers on its upper branches. Grace Crowfoot describes it in her classic work, From Cedar to Hyssop (London, 1932),as “the little grey-green marjoram with fragrant smell and masses of tiny white flowers.” Its pedigree as the za’tar herb has a long history. It is the same plant that the Talmud tells us is “crushed by all”, and it is today the preferred and most common flavoring ingredient in the Arabic spice blend called za’tar.
Having been introduced to this interesting herb, I naturally longed to grow and use it. At the time, I could find no commercial source of seeds, but I did manage to beg some from a botanist friend in Israel. Although in the Bible it exemplifies the stunted or modest growth of plants on rocky ground, I’ve found M. syriaca to be a handome plant, whether in full Mediterranean growth or its more restrained habit in my northern greenhouse, where I grow it in a hanging basket with the wiry stems cascading over the sides. I was thrilled with my first small harvest of leaves, whose fragrance is stronger than that of any oregano I’ve grown. I used the fresh leaves sparingly in salads, and sprinkled the dried leaves lightly over hot pizza (you haven’t tasted pizza until you’ve tried this!) and my morning eggs. I imagined myself one of the luckiest people in North America, enjoying this modest yet fabulous herb of history, filling my kitchen with its exotic fragrance.
The spice blend za’tar was not hard to find—I acquired it from a local Lebanese grocery—but I was surprised to read on the package that the main flavoring ingredient was neither a marjoram nor an oregano, but “thyme”. This concerned and mystified me, and it wasn’t until I traveled to the Middle East that I discovered that the name za’tar is given to more than one herb. The major za’tar herbs besides M. syriaca, as nearly as I have been able to determine, are these:
or Thymus capitatus, corido or conehead thyme, a stiff, bushy plant 8 to 10 inches tall with needlelike leaves and showy lavender flowers in large globes. The small leaves are hard to collect, but their flavor is spicier and more thymelike than the oregano-scented M. syriaca. In the Middle East, this thyme is considered the best substitute for what we might call (with a nod to the sages) true za’tar. Interestingly, the Arabic name for conehead thyme is za’tar unless M. syriaca is found in the same area; if so, then C. capitatus is called zuheif.
Satureja thymbra, a savory called za’tar parsi (Persian za’tar) or za’tar Romi (Roman za’tar) in Arabic, is one of the “false” hyssops. The aroma and flavor of the leaves are spicier than those of M. syriaca, and they can be used like those of summer savory (S. hortensis). The plant grows 12 to 18 inches tall and bears small-petaled pink flowers in whorls from the middle to the top of the stem, the flowers encircled with upturned, pointed leaves like a small green urn.
Thymbra spicata, spiked thyme, has a number of Arabic names: shivli, za’tar sibly, za’tar bari, and za’tar parsi. Perhaps the Bedouin village of Shibli was named after this herb, which grows in abundance nearby. Its dense, fine, dark green leaves are spicier and more thyme-scented and -flavored than the other za’tar plants. T. spicata grows from 1 to 2 feet tall, with 1- to 4-inch headlike clusters or spikes of tubular, bright rosy pink flowers. Native from Greece to Israel, this herb has been introduced as za’tar in North America, most likely because that is the name by which Syrian and Lebanese immigrants knew it at home, and much of our commercial za’tar comes from Lebanon. This is probably the “thyme” in the imported za’tar I first sampled from a Lebanese grocery. However, T. spicata is only rarely used in the spice blend za’tar in countries where M. syriaca grows.
Several other plants are considered “minor za’tars”, including Calamintha incana (za’tar mana) and Nepeta curviflora (za’tar chachla).
All of the za’tar plants have one thing in common: concentrations of the chemical compound thymol in their leaves, which give the herbs their characteristic oregano-thyme scent. The za’tar flavor preferred in the Middle East is on the sweeter, oregano side, as in M. syriaca; the substitutes have a more pronounced, spicier, and tangier flavor which is also a little bitter. It can be difficult to separate oregano and thyme flavors, and sometimes no distinction is made: T. spicata, for instance, is often a component of the blend available in North American supermarkets as oregano. But Middle Eastern connoisseurs can usually detect not only which herb has been used to flavor the za’tar blend but also what region the herb comes from. No doubt they are aided by knowing that the most intensely flavored za’tar herbs originate in the hot deserts.
In addition to its flavor contribution, thymol has proven antiseptic, bactericidal, and fungicidal properties, and this is the basis of the long and continuing history of the za’tar herbs’ medicinal use in the Middle East. Benefits claimed from using za’tar are many. Infusions or tisanes from the leaves are taken to treat digestive problems, edema, constipation, weariness, and heart disorders; the crushed leaves have been used to treat tooth decay, gum infection, and coughs. In Israel, it is the custom in some Arab villages to eat a small amount of Thymbra spicata leaves every morning as an immunization against poisons, and Arab men all over the Middle East believe za’tar enhances their virility. Leaves from Micromeria species make a refreshing cup of strong mint-flavored tea which, according to Middle Eastern folk medicine tradition, gives relief from weariness.
In 1981, a survey conducted throughout Israel to evaluate medicinal uses of plants among various Arab ethnic groups showed the za’tar plants to be well represented. Among them, M. syriaca had the greatest number of uses, followed closely by S. thymbra; Coridothymus capitatus held a distant third place, probably because the leaves are difficult to harvest in quantity.
Growing Za'tar Herbs
All the za’tar herbs are available in North America; see sources opposite. These Mediterranean herbs, packed with flavor and history, are all frost-tender, so except in Zones 8–10, they should be summered outdoors in pots (sunk in the ground if you wish) or planted directly in the ground but wintered over indoors. All can be raised from seed (temperatures of at least 70°F are required for germination) or propagated by division or stem cuttings. In my experience, they are long-lived if properly handled.
Choose a sunny, well-drained spot for your za’tar garden; a rockery where heat and moisture are easily captured over the growing season is ideal. The soil should be somewhat alkaline. I grow my Mediterranean collection in pots in our greenhouse, and I keep them there until the daytime temperature outdoors is consistently about 70°F. The gray-green herbs make a striking foil for tubs of marigolds, especially the ferny, dwarf signets (Tagetes tenuifolia) in shades of tangerine and gold.