Discovering Zatar Spice

Learn the history of zatar spice, a well-known blend of Middle Eastern spices and herbs. Includes zatar growing and cooking tips and ways of identifying the true zatar cooking blend.

| October/November 1992

  • This zatar plant is dried and added into a zatar spice blend.
    This zatar plant is dried and added into a zatar spice blend.
    Photo By Fotolia/Ekaterina Lin

  • This zatar plant is dried and added into a zatar spice blend.

A history of zatar spice and cooking tips for using this Middle Eastern herb.

Zatar Herb Recipes

Zatar Pita recipe
The Zatar Spice Blend

In the Western herb world, zatar spice 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, zatar (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 zatar. And as if that weren’t confusing enough, in the Middle East, the name zatar is bestowed upon one of several quite different plants, the choice depending on what other herbs are growing locally.

I became acquainted with the zatar 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 zatar.

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.

Kathy Cummings
3/16/2013 7:46:51 PM

I love Zatar, thank you for this article!

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