Learn about the true zatar spice blend used in Middle Eastern cooking.
The Zatar Spice Blend
Commercial zatar blends are available from many Middle Eastern food stores in North America or by mail order. However, the confusion surrounding the identity of the zatar herb itself carries over into the labeling of commercially packaged blends. Most claim to contain “thyme” and/or “marjoram”, but after encountering true zatar in the Middle East, I’m convinced that “thyme” does not describe the herb(s) I know as zatar. I’ve been much happier with the blend I make with my own M. syriaca.
Pinching off the leaves of zatar to add to salads, eggs, or pizza will encourage a bushy growth habit. For a larger harvest, cut back the plant when leaves are the most lush, before flowers have formed. This is when flavor is at its peak. Spread the leaves out on cookie sheets, with as few stems as possible. Place the pans in a just-warm oven (after baking or at the oven’s lowest setting) until leaves are crispy dry, then pulverize them in an electric coffee grinder or mortar and pestle. This powder by itself is a wonderful addition to spreads, dips, meat, pizza, spaghetti, and egg dishes.
The spice blend zatar usually consists of about three parts crushed or powdered dried leaves of the zatar herb, one part crushed roasted sesame seeds, one part ground sumac fruits (the non-poisonous Rhus coriaria, similar in flavor to our common staghorn sumac, Rhus typhina), and salt and pepper to taste. I think it best to purchase prepared sumac fruits, either whole and dried or already ground.
The zatar spice blend, traditionally mixed with olive oil and brushed on top of pita bread before it is baked, can also be used on other kinds of bread, or to give almost any food an oregano-thyme flavor. I add garlic powder to the traditional blend if the zatar is intended for flavoring pizza.
For more on zatar spice read the article Growing and Cooking with Zatar Spice.
Jo Ann Gardner of Orangedale, Nova Scotia, is an herb gardener and writer whose perseverance has produced an oasis in the wilderness. Storey Communications recently published her book, The Heirloom Garden, on growing old-fashioned ornamentals.