Za-atar, a regional spice mix that has been used throughout the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa for centuries has suddenly become the it condiment of the moment. Popularized by cookbook authors and restaurateurs including Paula wolfort, Nigella Lawson, and Yotam Ottolenghi & Sami Tamimi in their Jerusalem Cookbook.
Za’atar is as elusive as it is exotic! The essential ingredients are sumac, sesame seeds, and salt. Simple enough, but from there added regional ingredients vary widely, so attempting to make za’atar at home can be a western cooks conundrum. I have tried various variations without actually encountering an authentic za’atar from the region. Thankfully, a dear friend, who was off to London, armed with a sourcing list, went za’atar shopping for me and returned with a treasure trove of authentic za’atar and sumac from Comtoir Libanais. The Comtoir Libanais za’atar is robust, colorful, delightfully tasty, and addictive. I highly recommend a visit to their website.They also recently released a cookbook for those of you eager for further explorations into the foods of the Eastern Mediterranean.
The key ingredients in the recipe that follows are sumac, with a tart citrus taste, and wild thyme (similar to hyssop), with a sharp almost astringent flavor, found mostly in the Eastern Mediterranean. Neither is readily available other than from online spice purveyors, but some reasonable substitutes of my own are listed below.
- 1/4 cup fresh wild thyme leaves (lemon thyme, hyssop, or oregano are reasonable substitutes)
- 2 tablespoons powdered sumac powder (sour mango powder a reasonable substitute, available at South Asian purveyors)
- 1/4 teaspoon flaky sea salt+ more to taste
- 1-2 tablespoons sesame seeds
- ½ teaspoon ground red chili powder (or 1/4 teaspoon cayenne), optional
Preheat the oven to 250F/130C
Strip the fresh wild thyme leaves off the stem, discarding the stems. Place the leaves on a baking sheet in a single layer and dry roast just until they crumble easily between the fingers and are still green in color; about 10 to 12 minutes, being careful not to over dry roast the leaves, which will turn the leaves brown and bitter.
Toast the sesame seeds in a dry skillet over medium low heat, tossing the seeds so they toast evenly. Set aside to add to the mix later.
Place the toasted wild thyme, sumac powder, and salt in a mortar and grind together into a fine powder. Add the toasted sesame seeds and coarsely grind into the mix, leaving some seeds whole. Taste and add more salt if needed and the chile powder if using.
Serve with toasted, or grilled, breads generously brushed with olive oil, or use as a condiment with just about anything else you can imagine. The flavor is addictive and you will find that za’atar will find a permanent place as a must have seasoning on hand at all times in your kitchen!