Zaatar is popular in Middle East countries. It is a common name for a family of related herbs from oregano, basil, thyme and savory. Zaatar is also a name used for a mixture of dried herbs and other spices such as sesame seeds, dried sumac and salt. This condiment or spice mixture is popular in the Arab and Israeli cookery. Zaatar is also known to be popular in countries like Armenia, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Palestine, Syria, Tunisia and Turkey.
The term zaatar has no evident or definitive reference. However, there is confirmation that ancient Egypt used the zaatar plant. Zaatar’s ancient name has yet to be determined though. As part of the history of zaatar, there were thymbra spicata, one of the herbs used in zaatar’s preparation found on Tutankhamen’s tomb. In ancient Egypt, this thymbra spicata is popularly known as saem.
Palestinians also have a significant history of the use of the zaatar. In the early Palestinian time, the presence of a zaatar plant in a house means that the occupants are Palestinian. Palestinian refugees used zaatar to signify that a house, village and region are of Palestinian descent.
In Israel, zaatar is already considered an integral element in their cuisine. From a long time ago, Israelis of different origins are already exposed to the use of zaatar. Today, many Israeli companies are marketing zaatar. However, commercially zaatar is marketed under the name of hyssop or holy hyssop.
In 1977, Israeli government declared zaatar as a protected plant species. Israeli ecologists declared that the plant is on the threshold of being extinct due to over-harvesting. Arab citizens living in Israel misinterpreted the legislation to be anti-Arab because zaatar is a primary when it comes to their cuisine.
There are different ways in preparing zaatar and so are variations. Generally, zaatar is prepared by using dried thyme, oregano, marjoram or any combination of the mentioned ground herbs. To make the mixture more flavorful, sesame seeds (toasted) and salt are added. Homemakers often kept their own mixture of zaatar a secret to others. They do not share it with closed relatives and not even with daughters. This made determining the names of the spices used to be difficult.
Other known varieties add savory, fennel seed, cumin and coriander. In Lebanon, they mix sumac berries, which give their mixture a distinct red color. In Palestine, caraway seeds are added to their zaatar mixture. Zaatar is not only known for its distinct taste or use in the culinary world. Moreover, it is also know to contain high antioxidant property, which is known to prevent cancer.
Zaatar is an important part of the Middle Eastern countries culinary. In the Arab countries, it is usually consumed with pita bread immersed in olive oil. The condiment can be used as a spread for flat breads. Zaatar can also be used to season meat and vegetables. It is also a common companion in breakfast as an ingredient to spice up breads. Lebanese enjoys zaatar not only as a spice but they also believe that the herb makes the mind and body strong.