Have you ever tried Za'atar? If you live in the Northern Suburbs of Melbourne, chances are that you have tried this delicious spice mix on a freshly baked "pizza". If not, it is a delicious spice mix that has been used for centuries in the Middle East, was mentioned in the Bible and was commonly prescribed as a health food. The 12th century Spanish Jewish Philosopher Maimonides recommended Za'atar for colds and indigestion.
Recent animal studies have shown that volatile oils within Thyme may improve brain function by increasing the percentage of healthy fats (particularly DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid) in the brain, heart and kidneys. Interestingly, children are in Turkey are given pita bread with olive oil and za'atar on exam days. So not only does Za'atar enliven many of your standard dishes, it will also provide the myriad health benefits of this week's fave herb - Thyme.
Thyme aids in the digestion of rich fatty foods, and has been used as a salt substitute in salt-free diets due to the high concentration of vitamins and minerals (calcium, chromium, cobalt, iron, magnesium, manganese, potassium, phosphorous, selenium, sodium, zinc and silicon). Za'atar tastes great on vegetables, legumes, eggs, fish etc. My husband loves it sprinkled on grilled tofu.
Za'atar originally refers to a species of wild Thyme found in the Middle East. As wild thyme has become more difficult to source, garden thyme, oregano, marjoram have been used instead. The core ingredients of this spice mix are Thyme, Salt, Sesame Seeds and Sumac.
Sumac is a tart red berry that dries to a reddish purple colour, and is usually found ground rather than in its whole form. Sumac is easily sourced from Middle Eastern grocery stores. Sumac is high in flavonoids - antioxidants that help to defend against free radical damage and imparts a delicious zingy flavour to everything it touches.
My good friend Rouada has just informed me that most sumac available in Melbourne at the moment is in fact a cheap substitution because the real thing has been difficult to import from Syria lately. I am now on the hunt to try and grow this beautiful shrub, so If anyone has any information about growing Sumac (Rhus coriara) in Australia I would love to hear from you.
The base Zaatar recipe I use came from Ian Hemphill's gorgeous book 'Spice Notes - A Cook's compendium of herbs and spices'.
First, combine 1teaspoon of the sumac with 1/4 teaspoon of salt in a mortar and pestle (or nut grinder/food processor etc) and grind to a fine powder.
Next add in 3 teaspoons of your freshly dried Thyme*. and grind again slightly.
Finally add in 1 teaspoon of toasted sesame seeds. (Stir seeds in a dry pan over medium heat until they brown).
As mentioned previously, this is just a base recipe. Other herbs such as savoury which combines the flavours of thyme and oregano can be used, and spices such as cumin, coriander, turmeric, and pepper may also be added. Rouada's mother makes Za'atar with Thyme, Marjoram and Pistachios or roasted peanuts. Let your palate be your guide.
Store in an airtight glass jar in a cool dry place. This is a very small quantity as it always tastes best fresh. If you prefer to make a larger quantity store in the fridge or freezer to prevent the seeds from becoming rancid.
*If you are in a hurry and don't have any dried Thyme on hand you can make a fresh version using finely chopped fresh Thyme or Lemon Thyme (it will only keep for a few days). Otherwise Thyme can be dried on the bottom rack of your preheated oven on very low heat with the door open a crack. Click here for tips on harvesting your own thyme.