December 06, 2021 posted in Behind the Scenes

Za’atar, (often spelled zaatar, zartar, zatar) is a Middle Eastern spice blend that is used to flavour breads, and to season dishes in much the same manner as Mixed Herbs are used in Western cooking.

The term Za’atar tends to create some confusion in the marketplace, as this Arabic word is used in many Middle Eastern countries to describe both the herb thyme, and a blend made of thyme, sesame, sumac and salt. Therefore, in the Middle East, it will often be referred to as Za’atar Blend to differentiate it from thyme. Like many spice blends, za’atar will vary considerably from region to region; different areas prefer different proportions of herbs and spices, and may add other ingredients to reduce the cost, such as olive leaves and the leaves of the sumac tree.


When we developed our Za’atar blend we looked at traditional ingredients of thyme, sesame, sumac and salt. Then, to add extra balance as thyme is a very strong flavour, we included parsley and oregano. As with all spice blends, the quality is governed by the quality of the ingredients used.

Sumac is the hero in this blend, and it is crucial to use only sumac produced from the thin skin that surrounds the seed. Naturally we use the best thyme leaves, plus gently toasted, naturally-hulled sesame seeds to deliver a pleasant nutty taste. The sesame plant is an erect annual that grows 1–1.8 m high, and may have either bushy growth or slender, unbranched stems. Its irregular, oval and long leaves are hairy on both sides. White, lilac or pink flowers are borne along its stems from quite low down, and are followed by the fruits or capsules. Sesame seeds are contained within these four-sided, oblong, 3 cm long capsules, that shatter and spread their contents when fully ripe, hence the saying “Open sesame”!

Now, let’s get our heads around one of our favourite spices, sumac – and why it is so important in a Za’atar blend.

The sumac tree which bears berries for culinary use is only one among a species of at least 150 varieties of rhus tree, many of which are recorded as causing severe and painful skin irritation and cases of poisoning. For this reason we would not recommend trying to identify and use sumac in its growing state.

Our first encounter with the edible sumac tree (a member of the same family as the mango) was on a hot summer’s day near a scented, football-sized field of mint on the outskirts of the small town of Nizip in south-eastern Turkey, not far from Gaziantep. Growing in what looked like barren, rocky soil and flanked by gnarled olive trees and prolific pistachio and walnut groves, the sumac trees were 2–3 m tall with reasonably dense, dark-green frond-like foliage that looked at first glance similar to the surrounding olive trees. Ibrihim, the farmer whom we met, assured us that although deciduous, the leaves never turn bright scarlet like other decorative rhus trees, and that they have never known of anyone to suffer an allergic reaction from contact with the leaves or fruits.

Sumac berries stand out from the foliage like optimistic Christmas decorations. They are tightly bunched in conical-shaped clusters 8–10 cm long and about 2 cm across at the widest point near the base. Each berry – which develops from a similarly dense bunch of small, white flowers – is about the size of a cherry stone and when fully formed is green and covered with a hairy down like a kiwifruit. Most of the non-poisonous varieties of rhus have hairy berries, whereas the fruits on decorative types are smooth. The berries then ripen to a pinkish red and are finally deep crimson when harvested. Sumac berries have a very thin outer skin and flesh surrounding an extremely hard tick-shaped seed.

Sumac powder is a deep burgundy colour, coarse-textured and moist. The aroma is fruity, like a cross between red grapes and apple, with a lingering freshness. The taste is initially salty (from the salt added after processing), tangy (from malic acid contained in the downy covering on the berries – also found in sour apples) and pleasantly fruity with no sharpness. Although there are many delectable souring spices, such as tamarind and pomegranate, the refreshing fruity sourness of sumac is unique and one now sees why it has become so popular in Western cooking.

Sumac Ground

We were also fortunate to see the processing of sumac where clusters of ripe, crimson sumac berries are harvested by hand and put in the sun to dry and further ripen for two to three days. These bunches of fruits are then put through a stone mill which pulverises the berries and separates their acid-containing outer skin and the thin deep-crimson under-layer of flesh from the hard, stony seed and pieces of stem and remaining flowers. What first comes out of the mill is sieved to yield the darkest, most uniform and sweetest-tasting powder. Salt is added to act as a preservative and it also has the effect of enhancing sumac’s natural flavour. Remaining material is then put through the stone mill again and sieved to further extract any useful sumac and separate the hard seeds. These seeds are ground separately in a conventional grinder to yield a light-brown powder. Different grades of sumac are made by taking the first sieving and mixing varying proportions of second and third sievings with different amounts of powdered seeds. The best quality has the highest ratio of flesh and can be recognised by its deep colour and coarse uniform texture.

Za’atar is tasty and easy to use, it complements carbohydrates and is equally at home on breads and potatoes. Za’atar bread can be made in the same way as garlic bread by mixing a few teaspoons of the mix with butter and then spreading the za’atar butter into vertical slices of French bread before wrapping in foil and heating in the oven. The more traditional Middle Eastern method is to brush flat bread (such as Lebanese or pita bread) with olive oil, sprinkle it with za’atar and lightly toast. Za’atar goes well in mashed potato; it seasons baked potato wedges, and is an attractive and tasty coating for roast chicken and chicken pieces that are pan-fried, grilled or barbecued.

See Kate’s Recipes on our website using za’atar in Muhamarra Dip with Quick Za’atar Flatbread 

For more za’atar uses, see our Modern Middle Eastern Spice Kit that contains 7 spices and spice blends and 9 delicious recipes.

For detailed information about about herbs, spices and even how to make your own spice blends, see The Spice & Herb Bible third edition. This 800 page volume is the master work from Australia’s premier spice expert, Ian (Herbie) Hemphill, with recipes by eldest daughter Kate Hemphill.

In 2007 The Spice & Herb Bible second edition was joint winner of the award for Best Reference Book at the IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals) Cookbook Awards in Chicago.  In 2015 this third edition was a finalist in the ‘Reference and Scholarship’ Category of the James Beard Awards, which many consider to be the Oscars of the food world.

Cooks in the know understand that spices don’t necessarily equate to heat and rather use spices and herbs to enhance food flavours and to create new taste combinations and sensations. From bay leaves to lemon myrtle to vanilla beans, a well-stocked kitchen must have a wide selection of herbs and spices.

Spice & Herb Bible 3rd Edition
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