If you frequent Middle Eastern restaurants, za’atar spice is a familiar taste. But lately, za’atar has been popping up beyond its normal haunts and is fast becoming a flavor trend.
From Boston and New York to New Orleans and Ann Arbor, za’atar (pronounced zuh-ah-TAR) has begun to appear in cocktails, pastries and even fried chicken.
Za’atar spice can seem a little confusing. It is the generic name for a family of herbs from the oregano family. Za’atar itself is believed to have derived from hyssop, whose botanical name is Origanum syriacum.
However, za’atar has come to mean a mixture of spices that can include oregano, thyme, sumac, ground sesame seeds and salt. Check the list of ingredients on the jars or bags in your favorite spice store or market, and you’ll find a number of different variations on what’s included.
The end result, however, is a tangy spice that’s going beyond its traditional uses.
Alon Shaya, the owner of newly opened Saba in New Orleans and the soon-to-open Safta in Denver, demonstrated za’atar fried chicken on CBS This Morning this past weekend.
Shaya is serving his famed pita bread at Saba with a za’atar-spiced olive oil. And he’s in good company in putting it on his menu.
Breads and croissants with za’atar also can be found at Shatila, the sprawling bakery in Dearborn, Mich.
And, to my surprise, I found za’atar bread on the pizza menu at Bel-Mark Lanes in Ann Arbor, Mich., where I’m a member of the Early Risers Ladies Bowling League. Bel-Mark serves it with cheese made from lebneh, the Middle Eastern yogurt, plus Kalamata olives, tomatoes, and onions.
Leetal Arazi, a co-owner of spice merchants New York Shuk, likens za’tar’s progression to the path that’s been taken by hummus, tahini and falafel.
“Middle Eastern as a whole is making a breakthrough at the moment and as za’atar is such a pillar within that world, it only make sense it will get some proper and much deserved attention,” Arazi says.
As immigrants arrived from the Middle East, they brought different variations of za’atar with them.
“Like all recipes, every family and region has their own way about their za’atar blend. There is definitely no right or wrongs. Just a matter of taste,” she says.
The za’atar sold by New York Shuk begins with traditional Origanum syriacum, which is grown wild in the Middle East, she says. Their blend is sold as a Middle Eastern collection of spices, so that cooks can familiarize themselves with the flavors.
Arazi says she’s delighted by the different ways she’s spotted for the use of za’atar. In a fusion with South Korean flavors, cookbook author Seung Hee Lee used it as a finish for tofu steaks that were brushed with rice syrup and sesame oil.
Meanwhile, food blogger Molly Yeh put together a cucumber cocktail Popsicle with honey and za’atar. And Reem’s California, a cafe in Oakland, serves za’atar in a number of dishes, including a granola parfait.
So, if you’ve already experimented with turmeric and baked with tahini, think about adding some za’atar spice to your pantry, and have fun playing with it.