Zaatar is one of those herb-spice mixes that’s pure alchemy–a combination that’s so much better that the sum of its four parts. It’s a Middle Eastern blend that balances sour (sumac), nutty (sesame), aromatic (thyme) and salty flavours. It’s so addictively good, I’ve caught people eating it out of the bowl with a spoon.
Sumac is the only ingredient you’ll have to hunt for. It’s made from the dried berries of a sumac species that grows in southern Europe and the Middle East (similar, I’m told, to North American sumac plants). The deep red-brown spice is easy to find in grocers that specialize in Middle Eastern foods, and is also available in some bulk food stores. The same grocers will carry bags of premixed zaatar, using dried thyme. This mix is handy to have on hand, but I prefer making it with fresh thyme—it looks and tastes better.
Zaatar is often served with bread, in many variations. One of the easiest, and a great snack with drinks, is as a bread dipper: Put out slices of fresh baguette or pita alongside a dish of good olive oil and a bowl of zaatar for dipping. Or split small pitas, brush with olive oil, toast on the grill, and generously sprinkle zaatar on the rough, concave side. You can also make a quick spread by mixing zaatar with strained yogurt, or simply sprinkle some on top of a bowl of hummous. I don’t use it as a rub on grilled meats—the thyme and sesame seeds will burn—but I’d like to try it as a crust on the side of a beautiful tuna steak grilled rare (spread zaatar on a board, roll only the edge of the tuna steak in the mix, grill very briefly).
This fragrant mix is better made with fresh thyme than dried, and it’s at its very best if you mix the toasted sesame seeds in while they’re still hot—they will wilt the thyme slightly and bring out its flavour and aroma. This recipe makes a generous amount; keep any leftovers in the fridge (but, believe me, the leftovers won’t be there for long).
Hands-On Time: 10 minutes | Start to Finish: 10 minutes
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh thyme (60 ml)
1 1/2 tbsp ground sumac (22 ml)
1 tsp salt (5 ml)
1/4 cup sesame seeds (60 ml)
1. In a small bowl, mix thyme, sumac, and salt.
2. In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, toast sesame seeds, stirring constantly until fragrant and golden. Stir into thyme-sumac mix while still hot.
Yield: Makes about 1/2 cup (125 ml).