Behold the strangeness of zaâ€™atar.
Zaâ€™atar is an herb. Sorry â€“ itâ€™s not a specific herb, but one of any number of herbs in the hyssop family. Scratch that: itâ€™s a combination of herbs. But wait, sometimes there are sesame seeds. Actually, itâ€™s a paste made with some type or type of herbs, sesame seeds, and lots of olive oil.
Confused? Join the club.
In reality, zaâ€™atar is all of these things. There is a bush that grows in the deserts of Israel known as zaâ€™atar. The bush is most likely a member of the hyssop family, though some call it savory or wild oregano. Zaâ€™atar leaves are small and somewhat rough, and their flavor is a fusion of wild oregano and thyme.Â
The zaâ€™atar you buy in the supermarket is most likely a blend of different herbs. According to Lior Lev Sercarz, owner and spice blender behind the New York-based spice shop La BoÃ®te Ã Epice, the most traditional elements of a zaâ€™atar blend are zaâ€™atar leaves, sumac, sesame seeds, and thyme. The color of these blends varies
from forest green to dark, deep red-brown, and the flavor ranges from woodsy and deep to tangy and a bit nutty. It all depends on the balance of herbs in the blend, and every country — nay, every spice blender — makes it a bit differently.
Zaâ€™atar has many uses. Food carts and hole-in-the-wall lunch joints use it as flavoring for labneh, a thick sheepâ€™s milk yogurt. In Lebanon, the traditional salad of tomatoes and ripped pita called fattoush is topped with a dusting of zaâ€™atar. The Druze, a community living primarily in the north of Israel, use zaâ€™atar in a salad of red onions, lemon, and olive oil. But in countries across the Middle East, from Israel to Egypt to Syria and Lebanon, zaâ€™atarâ€™s most common application is as seasoning for bread. If you order a â€œlaffa im zaâ€™atarâ€ from one of the stalls in the Israeli shuk (open-air market), the stout man behind the counter will hand you a hot, floppy flatbread shmeared with a layer of zaâ€™atar paste, made of crushed herbs, sesame seeds, salt, and plenty of olive oil â€“ an addictive combination.
Here’s the irony: pinning down the origins and uses for this mysterious herb was actually more complicated than making that delicious flatbread. Laffa im za’atar is a snap to make, no two ways about it. If you can’t find a za’atar blend at a specialty or Middle East grocer, I’ve provided a recipe for homemade za’atar, which is my take
on the Israeli zaâ€™atar blend I ate regularly during my time in Jerusalem. The restis simple: make flatbread dough, stretch it on a sheet pan, drizzle it with olive oil and sprinkle with za’atar, and bake in a piping hot oven until bubbly and browned. If you’re staying really traditional, you’ll let the thing cool and eat it as an on-the- go snack. That’s if you can resist a bite of za’atar-coated bread right out of the oven, which I cannot.
Laffa Im Za’atar (Flatbread with Za’atar)
3 tablespoons sesame seeds, toasted
2 tablespoons dried thyme
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon sumac
1 tablespoon sea salt
For the Flatbread:
1 Â½ cups all-purpose flour
Â½ teaspoon instant yeast
Â¾ teaspoon salt
Â¾ cup water
Olive oil, for drizzling
In a large bowl, mix flour, yeast, and salt. Add water and stir until blended. The dough will be quite sticky. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let rest in a warm place for about 2 Â½ hours.Â
Preheat oven to 500.
Spread 1 tablespoon olive oil on each of 2 rimmed baking sheets. Separate risen dough into 2 pieces, and using a light touch, start to spread dough into circles on baking sheets.Â When the dough balls have been spread into circles about 8 inches wide, sprinkle 1 1/5 tablespoons of za’atar onto each. Drizzle 1 tablespoon olive oil overtop.
Bake flatbreads for 10-12 minutes, until browned and crisp. Serve warm or at room temperature.