I posted about za’atar right when I first started blogging, and that post has been long-overdue for an update. Then just last summer, my friend Mai brought me this beautiful bouquet of wild herbs from her garden, which inspired me to finally get my act together and write up a post about this beloved—and sometimes misunderstood—herb.
The thing is, I feel like I can confidently say that za’atar is misunderstood because I certainly misunderstood it for a long time, especially when I first started blogging. Ok, so here’s the thing I didn’t always understand: while it’s often described in English as “wild thyme,” and while many recipe writers insist that you can blend your own za’atar by using any old thyme or oregano… za’atar actually bears little in common with the kind of thyme you’ll most often find in a US supermarket in those little plastic containers or dry spice shakers. It doesn’t look very much like it, and most importantly, it doesn’t taste very much like it. I had never had access to fresh za’atar before last summer, and now thanks to Mai, I finally know the difference.
A quick caveat: while za’atar and French thyme are really quite different, I’m not exactly claiming that za’atar made from French thyme is “inauthentic”—it’s just important to acknowledge that it’s very different from what most people in the Middle East mean when they say “za’atar.” Lots of folks (my family included) have learned to make do with the ingredients available in their new home after immigrating, and za’atar made from French thyme out of necessity is no less authentic than za’atar grown in the hills of the Levant. Authenticity comes form a place of love, memory, and honor, and not from authority.
But while I believe there are many different versions of “authentic”… it’s also totally possible to approach things with a less than authentic spirit, and I guess what I’m trying to say is that if you’re going to stick to making za’atar out of something other than wild thyme, you might want to know a bit about its origins, and what za’atar means to the millions of people who forage for it in the Levant and surrounding area.
So I’ll just leave you with this quick synopsis. I’m calling this section “za’atar frequently asked questions,” but it might be more aptly titled “an imaginary conversation I had with myself about za’atar.”
za’atar frequently asked questions
what is za’atar?
It’s a wild herb, which grows in the eastern Mediterranean.
ok but Is za’atar thyme? Or what?
Sorta-kinda! Za’atar, in the strictest sense, is a particular family of wild herbs. There are a few different wild varieties, which are related to things like oregano and thyme, but are not the same as the thyme that’s sold in most US supermarkets. Wild za’atar is about as different from French thyme as Thai basil is from Italian basil—somewhere in the ballpark, and you can probably get away with a substitution, but it’s different in many significant ways.
E.g., The one Mai gifted me tasted way more like oregano than thyme, and if I were to try to approximate its flavor without access to fresh za’atar, I would rely way more strongly on Italian oregano than French thyme.
I thought za’atar was a blend of herbs and spices—true or false?
Za’atar is both the name of the herb, and the name of the herb/spice blend. It’s often mixed with sesame and sumac (among other things), and everyone’s blend is different. But for most people, the wild herb is the essential part.
how can I find the best za’atar?
There are lots of different kinds, and I wouldn’t be so bold as to say one is better than another.
Ok, ok, then how can I find za’atar that’s most like the kind you’d find in the levant? for making manakish za’atar and all that good stuff?
That’s easy! Buy a brand from your favorite Middle Eastern market labeled “za’atar,” and enjoy! You can also find it on Amazon and elsewhere online.
what if I want to blend my own?
I mean, herbs are delicious! If you use whatever thyme is available to you, I’m sure it’ll be tasty. I like to use 1 part sumac, 1 part thyme, and 1 part sesame. But the resulting blend will be very different from those found in Middle Eastern markets, and if you bake some manakish za’atar for someone who’s from there, and actually call it manakish za’atar, they’re probably going to be very surprised at how different it tastes. And they might be like “you sure you used za’atar in this?” So maybe we should call it something else, like a za’atar-inspired thyme blend? Ok that’s not great. I’ll keep working on it.
In the meantime, check out a few of my favorite za’atar recipes (or visit the archives for a full list), and enjoy!