You can use za’atar seasoning to provide dishes with an herbal fragrance combined with a zesty citrus-like tang and a hint of nuttiness. This seasoning blend is popular in the Middle East but is versatile enough to be used in many different cuisines. If you want food flavored with za’atar, you should make an effort to find an expertly mixed blend at a Middle Eastern grocery or at an online spice retailer. If neither is an option, consider one of the many alternatives.
Your best bet: Make your own blend
As with most ancient traditional spice blends, the ingredients in za’atar are added based on the maker’s preference; there is no one standard recipe. In fact, there are many regional variations throughout the Middle East, with each being representative of local ingredients. The main flavors in the blend are those of oregano, sumac and sesame seed. Those three are what you need. The other spices are essentially a supporting cast, which means that you can choose freely from among the ones you have on hand. Of the main three, sumac may be the hardest to find. The good news is that while it offers a distinctive tartness to the blend, there are substitutes such as lemon pepper seasoning that can give your homemade za’atar a touch of authenticity. Use your za’atar in exactly the same way that you would use a premixed blend.
A decent second choice: Dukkah
This Egyptian spice blend has almost as many variations as za’atar. One of the principal flavors in za’atar is sesame seed, which also provides the mix with nuttiness and a crunchy texture. Dukkah offers that crunch in abundance since it can contain both hazelnuts and sesame seeds. It gets its herbal component from dried thyme and mint, both of which are found in many za’atar blends. You can find dukkah in many Middle Eastern markets, or you can make your own with spices you have available. Note that dukkah blends include spices like coriander and cumin, so only use it as a za’atar substitute if they will complement the flavors in your dish. You may also need to adjust the amounts of other spices in a recipe to compensate for the ones in dukkah. Use dukkah in the same quantity that you would use za’atar and adjust to taste.
In a pinch: Harissa
As with the other za’atar alternatives above, there are different versions of the harissa spice blend used throughout North Africa and the Middle East. It can also come in the form of a paste or as a powder. Popular blends tend to contain smoked chili peppers along with mint, cumin and coriander. It is a strong, potent spice mix that makes a significant difference in the flavor profile of a dish. Your best bet for finding harissa is in a Middle Eastern market, but it has grown in popularity in recent years; you may be able to find it in the ethnic section of some grocery stores, or it’s certainly possible to make it yourself. You can use harissa as a za’atar substitute in many dishes, but remember that it contains chili peppers. The fact that it can make dishes spicy means that you should use it carefully. Start out by adding a fraction of what your recipe requires for za’atar and increase until you are happy with the flavor profile.
Italian seasoning is a herb blend that contains many of the same ingredients found in za’atar. The herbs in most Italian seasoning include oregano, marjoram and thyme. This blend can provide much of the fragrance and many of the same flavor notes as za’atar, making it an effective substitute.