What is Za’atar?

After all the fun and good times I had last week and over the weekend, this past week has been very quiet. Of course Monday was a holiday and there was nothing much going on in town and on Tuesday, it was my afternoon to work in the gift shop. That morning, several of the Auxiliary members and I met at our workshop to begin work on our tray favors for our hospital patients for the month of March. We had discussed rainbows/pots of gold, shamrocks and numerous other things the previous week, and since my daughter was at the house, she found me some cute rainbows and also pots of gold to go with them. We got them printed out and on Tuesday another one of the members and I got them cut to the size we needed and we began gluing them to some card stock. They turned out really cute and when we finished that, we discussed what we were going to do for Easter. We dug around in the workshop and managed to find several things we could do and began working on the one we selected. We’ll work on it again after our meeting in March and probably be able to finish it. We’ve been told the patients really seem to enjoy our little favors and the kitchen staff that puts them on the trays also supports us, and more than one of the nurses has told us how much they’re appreciated.
The upcoming weekend sounds as if it’s going to be a little busy as a friend has asked me to go with her to a church picnic, and that is always interesting.
Recently, in various magazines, especially in FOOD NETWORK, they have referred to the addition of za’atar as a spice in some dishes. It made me curious enough to go into Google and see what it was. I typed in the word “za’atar” and got quite a bit of information especially from Wikipedia the free encyclopedia. As far as I can tell, it is most common in many Mediterranean and mid-eastern countries, including Algeria, Armenia, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Turkey.
In the Levant, the common belief is that za’atar makes the body strong, and children are encouraged to eat a sandwich with za’atar in it for breakfast before school or before an exam. However, this is also believed to be a myth that was begun during the Lebanese Civil War to encourage the eating of za’atar as there was a shortage of foods and in the shrubbery form it was readily available.
It has been around since Biblical times and is believed to have been used in ritual purification ceremonies. There are shrubs and plants growing in the wild, including hyssop that are used and known as za’atar and branches or bunches of these shrubs were supposedly used to paint the blood of the lambs on the lintels of the homes.
The ground spice seems to be a combination of thyme, marjoram, oregano or some type of similar combination that is mixed with toasted sesame seeds and salt. However, it can also contain sumac berries, which cause it to be red in color. (The photo of a package looked as if it was chili powder.)
According to the article, it seems that there are as many variations as there are countries where it is most commonly known. Also, in olden times, the exact recipe was not always shared, even among family members.
The latest recipe that I found containing za’atar is for a spread used on toast. This spread is similar to hummus, in that it contains tahini and olive oil. However, instead of being made with chick peas (garbanzo beans), it is made with baked sweet potatoes that are mashed and the seasonings added. It is then spread on toast and sprinkled with za’atar.
The information given, from Wikipedia the free encyclopedia is relatively long, with photos of the plants, so this is just some of the highlights.
One of the sites, dated May 24, 2018 gives the following ingredients for making za’atar:
1 Tablespoon ground cumin
1 Tablespoon ground dried thyme,
1 Tablespoon sumac (I have no idea where you would get this)
1 Tablespoon toasted sesame seeds (optional
2 teaspoons dried marjoram
1 teaspoon fine Kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Mix all together and use. Now, here is the recipe for the spread to be used on toast and sprinkled with the za’atar!
The recipe is from the January/February issue of FOOD MAGAZINE
Sweet Potato Toast with Za’atar
4 slices multigrain bread, toasted
2 medium sweet potatoes
¼ cup tahini
2 Tbs. olive oil
juice of ½ lemon
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon cumin
small pinch of cayenne pepper
Microwave the sweet potatoes until tender, 8 to 10 minutes. (The time will depend on the watts of your microwave, if your microwave is 1100 watts, they will cook faster). When done, peel and puree the potatoes in a food processor, adding the remaining ingredients, until smooth. Toast the multigrain bread and spread with the potato mixture, top with additional olive oil and the za’atar.
The following recipe for hummus is from my daughter, it is simple to make and is delicious. (To me, it is sort of an acquired taste…it took me a while to get used to the texture and flavor.)
6 tablespoons lemon juice
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons tahini
2 cloves garlic
2 cans garbanzo beans (aka chick peas)
Drain 1st can of beans and blend with the garlic until smooth, add lemon juice, olive oil and tahini and blend until smooth. Drain 2nd can of beans, reserving juice. Add to first mixture and blend until smooth, adding reserved juice until desired consistency.
Another snack that has been appearing in magazines a lot lately is roasted chick peas, they are suggesting it as a snack rather than potato chips. I haven’t tried it, but, have to admit, I might soon!
Roasted Chickpeas
2 cans (4 cups) chickpeas
2 Tbs. olive oil
1 tsp. salt
Preheat oven to 400º. Line a baking sheet with foil or parchment paper. Drain chickpeas and pour into a bowl, toss with the olive oil and salt; and spread evenly onto prepared baking sheet and bake for 25 minutes in preheated oven, shaking the pan every 10 minutes so they cook evenly. Other recipes I have found have called for adding cayenne or chili powder to the chickpeas before baking.