Za’atar: Wild Thyme & other spices
This Middle Eastern spice mix is so simple and bursting with flavor. It can be eaten sprinkled over yogurt or labneh, mixed with some olive oil as a dip for bread, used as a rub for grilled chicken, sprinkle on an avocado, or in many other endlessly interesting ways. It is normally bought ready-made in a store, but I highly recommend trying the homemade version. The difference is like night and day and the flavor of this version is phenomenal. Seriously.
The history of Za’atar is also fascinating. Here is an excerpt from NPR’s the salt:
Eaten in the Middle East for centuries, za’atar has a fascinating history. The word refers both to the alluring spice mixture that you encounter, and to the wild oregano (Majorana syriaca or Origanum syriacum) from which the mix derives (the latter za’atar, by the way, makes several appearances in the Bible).
Just what’s in your za’atar depends, in part, on where you are in the Mideast. But generally speaking, it involves some combination of ground dried oregano, thyme or marjoram, ground sumac, toasted sesame seeds and often, salt.
As for za’atar’s reputation as health food, that goes way back, too. In the 12th century, the great Spanish Jewish philosopher Maimonides is said to have prescribed it to his patients to treat a variety of ailments.
Modern studies into za’atar confirm that Maimonides was really on to something. Sumac is full of flavonoids, and thyme and oregano are both packed with thymol, an essential oil, and carvacrol, a phenol. Both thymol and carvacrol have antioxidant, antiseptic and fungicide properties. Thymol has also been shown to help control coughing fits in patients with bronchitis (which might explain why Maimonides recommended za’atar to treat colds).
But is za’atar brain food? Well, there’s this tantalizing tidbit about carvacrol: At least in mice, it seems to travel from the blood into the brain relatively easily. Researchers are really just beginning to explore what it does once it gets there. For example, a study published this May found that, when administered orally to rats, carvacrol affected levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine — which plays a key role in the brain’s rewards system — and serotonin, which is important to learning and mood.
NPR goes on to later note that za’atar can also refer to wild thyme as well as wild oregano. In the recipe, either will do.
- 1 Tbps fresh wild thyme or wild oregano, leaves only
- 1 Tbsp toasted sesame seeds
- 1 Tbsp sumac
- 1 Tbps ground cumin
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp black pepper
Mix all the ingredients together. Store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to two weeks. Wow your friends and family when you whip out this amazing spice mix!
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