All about Zahtar Spice

April 9, 2016 | By

Pronounced as Zah-tahr and often written as Za’atar this blend dates back as far as the 13th century and originated in the Middle East. In essence it is a mixture of dried herbs, sesame seeds, sumac and salt. Zahtar is in fact the Arabic word for thyme, and therefore it stands to reason that this is the main ingredient. Although thyme and oregano make up most of the blend, marjoram, mint and sage are also common features.

Zahtar is eaten throughout the Middle East as well as North Africa, and most of the Mediterranean countries. It is a particularly popular blend in Lebanon and Syria.

Regional variations of the zahtar mixture exist along with secret recipes within families. In Lebanon the blend consists of an orange tang, Israeli concoctions usually include dried dill, and a typical Palestinian recipe contains caraway seeds.

Whatever the recipe, the secret in its distinctive taste is the sumac content. Sumac is the ground berries of the sumac bush, found in various parts of the Middle East but mainly in Iran. Although sumac is burgundy in color it actually has a distinct lemon flavor, it is in fact used in the Lebanon and Syria as a substitute for lemons. Therefore zahtar with high sumac content will be dark red in color and give more bite.

Used as a condiment, it can be sprinkled onto a variety of dishes. It is often added into olive oil and eaten as a dip. It can be mixed in with dough prior to the baking of bread and is frequently rubbed onto meat prior to roasting. In Lebanon it is mainly eaten with breakfast, it is mixed into oatmeal, yogurt, and makes a delicious accompaniment to labne which is a tangy and creamy cheese.

In the Middle East it is said that Zahtar maintains brain function, and for this reason children are fed with zahtar prior to school exams. However, this idea is generally thought to be a myth. The notion is believed to have originated during the Lebanese war when resources were scarce and yet zahtar was plentiful.

Zahtar does come ready prepared and is widely available in the western world. It can be bought in Middle Eastern grocery stores, natural food stores, and on line. However, nothing beats making this recipe at home. It is fun to experiment with the ingredients, adjusting the amounts each time until a particular favorite is discovered.


Category: Food

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