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Crowned by Sarah Shaweesh of vegan Khamsa Cafe in Sydney as the "Vegemite of the Middle East", za'atar (pronounced zaah-tar) is a spice mix used extensively in Middle Eastern cooking. This condiment is loved for its strong aroma and bold, nutty flavour that pairs well with bread, pastry, salad and meat.
Hoda Hannaway, former MasterChef Australia contestant and Lebanese celebrity chef, says "It's a staple in every Middle Eastern pantry.
"It's one of those spices or spice mixes that are my go-to when I want to jazz things up."
While za'atar is known widely as a spice mix, few know that it is also the name of a perennial herb. The za'atar herb (origanum syriaca) is a member of the oregano family and can be found across the Middle East under alternative names including wild za'atar, wild thyme, marjoram syriaca, bible hyssop or Lebanese oregano.
The plant has an enduring history with use in Ancient Egypt for anti-septic and anti-inflammatory healing purposes. It was also eaten during the Lebanese civil war as it was believed to make the body stronger and mind more alert.
Shaweesh says, "When we were young, our families used to tell us 'Eat za'atar so you'll be smart and pass all your exams'."
Za'atar is now widely available in Levant countries where it grows naturally. It thrives in full sun conditions and well-drained soil so is harvested during the summer months. The short shrub grows to approximately 40 cm high and can be characterised by its small cottony, green-grey leaves and strong, spicy aroma.
The za'atar herb is hard to source and comes in a variety of grades and freshness. Harvesting of higher quality za'atar begins with washing it in water to clean the velvety leaves of accumulated soil dust. The herb is then left to dry outdoors for a few days before being packaged in bundles and left to rest indoors.
"I love the mix of the herbs, the tanginess from the sumac, and the nuttiness from the sesame seeds."
After one or two weeks, the leaves are collected and sieved to remove stalks and twigs. The most premium grade za'atar may undergo further air blowing to shed the leaves of their cottony skin. While processing a higher quality herb is labour intensive, these premium grades contain higher levels of thymol oil and carvacrol, which intensify flavour.
Traditional za'atar spice mixes are made from the dried za'atar herb combined with toasted sesame seeds, dried sumac and salt. The result is an earthy and tart flavour with a grainy texture.
Hannaway says, "I love the mix of the herbs, the tanginess from the sumac, and the nuttiness from the sesame seeds."
Some varieties across the Middle East also include ground cumin, fennel, coriander, aniseed, caraway, peanuts and chickpeas.
The term za'atar is increasingly misused in the marketplace and it's rare to find spice blends made with the genuine za'atar herb. To mimic its zingy, savoury flavour, substitutes such as oregano, thyme and marjoram are often used.
The traditional way to eat za'atar is to dip fresh bread in olive oil then dip it in the spice mix. Shaweesh, who grew up in a Palestinian household, says "You can't have za'atar without olive oil.
"At home we always have one little pot of (olive oil) and one little pot of za'atar next to each other."
Most bakeries in the Middle East sell this in the form of a traditional bread called man'oushe.
Hannaway explains, "Basically, it's just the za'atar mix mixed with a bit of olive oil, and then spread on the dough and baked."
Pre-COVID, Shaweesh was selling the so-called breakfast 'pizzas' at her Palestinian inspired vegan eatery, Khamsa Cafe, but has since reinvented them into a cheesy za'atar scroll.
"It smells like home, especially when I put it in the oven and the whole cafe smells like za'atar, and it's so heavenly and yummy," she reflects. "It just reminds me of family and …when we'd go to school and have za'atar wraps in our lunchbox."
Za'atar can also be used to make several popular Mediterranean appetisers, including shanklish. This Lebanese snack is made by rolling dry-cured balls of labneh in za'atar to create a crisp outer coating. Shaweesh loves making a vegan version of these with coconut labneh. Fresh za'atar leaves can also be used to make za'atar salad (salatet al-zaatar al-akhdar), which is a popular Levantine salad consisting of fresh thyme, onions, garlic, lemon juice, olive oil and salt.
For home cooks, Hannaway recommends using za'atar as a seasoning for meats and salads or sprinkling it on dips, soups, fries, and avocado on toast.
"I love that it's so versatile and that you can use it in many different ways," she says.
You can find this keystone Middle Eastern herb at most Middle Eastern grocers and spice shops in Australia. Sarah recommends the Kabatilo za'atar brand, which she purchases from Abu Salim Supermarket in Greenacre in the Canterbury-Bankstown area of Sydney.
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