A culinary option you may have overlooked

I’ve recently been visiting my aunt in Jordan, and as a result I would like to advocate something very important that if you’ve not had much exposure to middle eastern cuisine you may have overlooked.

Specifically, that there’s this thing called Za’atar and it’s amazing and oh god you should be eating so much of it and why aren’t you?

I first encountered it as a kid growing up in Saudi Arabia. Then we moved to England I forgot about it for ~ 10 years. At some point in my early 20s I said to my mother “So… I remember eating this thing with yoghurt and pita bread as a kid. What was that?”, rediscovering it as a result and finding out that it was even more amazing than I remembered.

Confusingly, Za’atar refers to two different things. It is both a species of herb (related to thyme. One of its English names is “wild thyme”. This confused me so much that it’s only in writing this blog post that I’ve understood that they aren’t the same thing and why my past experiments with making it have been so disappointing). It’s also the name of a spice mix made of said herb.

As a result the (non-recursive) basic ingredient list for Za’atar is:

  • Za’atar
  • Sumac
  • Toasted sesame seeds
  • Salt

It frequently contains other herbs and spices as well. I’ve no real idea what the “correct” ones are and it seems to vary a lot from brand to brand and person to person.

The result is this wonderful slightly sharp and spicy savoury mix.

The correct way to eat za’atar is to basically put it in large quantities on everything.

That being said, 90% of the way I eat it is much simpler: Take pita bread, dip pita bread in greek yoghurt, dip yoghurt coated pita bread in za’atar. You can also substitute olive oil or hummus for the yoghurt in this.

Other ways of eating it include making some sort of flat bread and topping it with olive oil and za’atar before baking and heaping it on top of a lightly dressed salad (just using a bit of olive oil for the dressing works well. You can also add lemon to give it a little more of a kick). There are a lot of za’atar based recipes but I’m basically such a fan of the the pita bread mode of eating that I’m always slightly hesitant to experiment in case it would be disappointing.

Which brings us to… the dark side of the za’atar.

It’s available in London, certainly. Also online. The problem is that it’s available in the same way that spices are available: You pay £2-5 for a little 50g sachet of it.

A 50g sachet of za’atar is approximately 1.5 servings. Maybe 2 if you stretch it.

This can be worked around. It takes a bit of hunting, but there are stores both physical and virtual which will sell you za’atar for a sensible price (generally speaking my rule of thumb is that you should be paying under 10% of what you’d get it for in a normal supermarket for spices – so in the above case £2-5 should buy you about 500g). There seem to be online shops for za’atar which will do this, and also some turkish supermarkets (though I’ve not been super impressed with the quality of some of the za’atar I’ve bought in London. It’s been ok, certainly it’s been better than not having za’atar, but it’s not been amazing. I think this may be because it’s made with a mix of actual thyme and other green spices in an attempt to approximate real wild thyme).

I can’t offer great advice on provisioning it unfortunately because my main source is friends and family in the middle east. I just want to make it clear that these are the quantities you should be buying it in.

And that if you haven’t tried it you should definitely be buying it.

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