what is za'atar mix ?
A blend of oregano, (Origanum syriacum), sumac (Rhus coriaria), sesame seeds and a little salt. Bassatin Baanoub’s mix contains one herb, oregano, and not thyme (confusingly also called za’atar in Arabic). Since it’s been part of the eastern Mediterranean diet for thousands of years, each region, and indeed family, will have their own recipe. In August, when oregano and sumac are harvested, families gather their own, to store this precious health giving ingredient for the winter.
Native to Lebanon, Origanum syriacum grows wild throughout the country. During the summer, Yasmina and her small team of workers hand pick the white flowering tips. They leave them to dry before picking off the end part, which is then crushed and added to the mixture. In the picture below, you can see the dried oregano flower on the left, and thyme on the right. As a protected plant, Yasmina needs to obtain a licence from the government to be able to sell and export the za’atar mix from Lebanon.
Sumac, otherwise known as Rhus coriaria, is a key ingredient in Lebanese kitchens. It’s much loved in Turkey and Iran too for its zesty sourness. In the za’atar mix, sumac adds lemony notes, helping to balance out the strength of the aromatic oregano. Famous also for its deep red colour, which comes once it has been completely dried in the sun, this is such a quintessentially Lebanese spice.
Today research shows that all the individual ingredients in za’atar mix have benefits for our health. It is their combined anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial and anti-microbial properties which are of interest to us as a source of “healthy” food. As an iconic food staple in Lebanon, it belongs to an ancient culinary heritage which embodies Hipprocrates’ saying: “Let food be your medicine and let medicine be your food“.
how is it used in Lebanon?
It’s hard to ignore the smell as you walk past a bakery in Lebanon. Intensively aromatic, the mixture is blended with olive oil and spread on dough to be baked in an oven for a few minutes. Mana’eesh were once a daily staple in Lebanon, eaten for breakfast or a mid carbohydrate boost. Since the economic crash, many families treat themselves once a month. Some will bring their own oil and za’atar mix, so that they only have to pay for the dough.
photo by Joao Sousa L’Orient Le Jour
put some flavour on the table!
Za’atar mix can also be used as a seasoning, a wonderful way of bringing the aroma of the Lebanese mountain into your kitchen. Rub over chicken, add some to a savoury biscuit mixture, or scatter into a chickpea and pasta dish. We hope that the delicious fragrance in your kitchen inspires you to create new dishes.