Za’atar is a truly ancient spice blend with roots that stretch back to Biblical times. The name is also used in reference the herb thyme. There is evidence of its use in ancient Egypt and it was mentioned by Pliny the Elder.
Maimonides was a 12th-century Jewish philosopher, later described the mixture of herbs and spices. Maimonides considered za’atar brain food.
Its use as a staple of Arab cuisine would continue through medical times to the present. It also plays an important role in Palestinian households. Za’atar would eventually gain a starring role in Israeli cuisine, which it continues to hold.
Flavor profile of za’atar
While za’atar blends may vary from household to household, most contain several common ingredients including marjoram, oregano and thyme along with sumac and sesame seeds. The result is a mixture with a strong, sharp fragrance that has clear nutty notes. The sumac gives it a lemony flavor that balances well with the other strong flavors in the blend. Regional variations may add other ingredients to the mix like orange zest or dill.
Health benefits of za’atar
Za’atar contains multiple health-boosting compounds including:
- Phenols: The thyme and oregano contained in many za’atar blends contain the phenols thymol and carvacrol. Both have antimicrobial properties that can help to suppress fungi and bacteria. Their benefits extend to fighting diseases that are resistant to drugs like strains of salmonella and staphylococcus aureus. These phenols can weaken them so that they become susceptible to antibiotics.
- Antioxidants: Quercetin and gallic acid are two powerful anti-inflammatory agents that can help to fight cancer. Quercetin and gallic acid also have antifungal and antimicrobial benefits.
- Fatty acids: The sesame seeds in za’atar are a rich source of oleic acid. Oleic acid can help to lower levels of low-density lipoprotein, which is sometimes referred to as “bad cholesterol.
- Vitamins: Sesame seeds are rich sources of B-complex vitamins. A 100 g serving of sesame seeds can provide you with almost 30 percent of your niacin needs for the day. Dry marjoram leaves are packed with vitamin A. A 100 g serving provides more than 200 percent of what you need in a day.
Za’atar ‘s ingredients allow it to provide a range of health benefits with respect to conditions like:
- Heart disease: High cholesterol is a factor in heart disease. Ingredients in za’atar have shown an ability to reduce cholesterol and may thus help protect your cardiovascular system.
- Diabetes: Studies have shown that the sumac in za’atar is able to lower the blood glucose of people with type 2 diabetes.
- Dementia: A 2011 study showed that the phenols in za’atar were effective for elevating serotonin and dopamine in rats and may help to alleviate dementia symptoms.
Common uses of za’atar
The most popular use of the seasoning blend is to toss it with olive oil and brush it onto flatbread. You get a similar effect by dipping the bread into olive oil and then into za’atar.
Other ways to use it include as a seasoning for meat, fish or poultry. You can even sprinkle it over roasted vegetables or use it to add more flavor to your hummus.