Few words will evoke more pride, nostalgia and emotion in a Lebanese person than za’atar. It is the aroma of our childhood, a staple of traditional Lebanese food and even a symbol of our culture itself.
The word za’atar has several meanings which will vary depending on who you ask – the confusion comes from it having become part of many different cultures with a variety of languages. Thankfully, most will agree on the basics; za’atar refers to a type of plant as well as to a blend of spices.
The plant is native to the Levant region (which includes modern day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Israel) and it has grown there for thousands of years. While za’atar has been described as everything from wild thyme to hyssop – most believe it to be the shrub-like plant known as Origanum syriacum.
As for za’atar the spice blend, there are once again many opinions regarding what constitutes the ‘real thing’. Many Lebanese families have their own secret recipes that have been passed down from generation to generation and each region of the Middle East has their own style of za’atar, usually determined by the available local ingredients. Most commonly a za’atar blend will include dried thyme, oregano, marjoram, sumac, toasted sesame seeds and salt.
At home, it is common to mix za’atar with olive oil to form a spread which is then applied to Lebanese bread. Lebanese bakeries generally miz the za’atar with corn or sunflower oil, spread onto raw dough and the baked rapidly to create a soft bread.
Traditionally, Za’atar is eaten with labne (a strained yoghurt cheese), fresh vegetables and several other types of cheese. It is more and more common to combine za’atar with meats, and also to sprinkle over salads as a seasoning.
Za’atar has been part of Middle Eastern culture for thousands of years and has been used for everything from food and medicine to perfume. To understand the significance of za’atar you need to understand its history; let’s take a look.
Loved by Pharaohs
Some of the oldest evidence of za’atar is from the time of the Pharaohs. While it isn’t known exactly how ancient Egyptians used za’atar, according to the ancient botanist Dioscorides, za’atar is referred to extensively throughout ancient Egyptian records. Remnants of Thymbra spicata (an element often used in modern za’atar blends) was even found in the tomb of King Tutankhamun!
A holy remedy
Many Bible scholars believe that references to the plant ‘ezov’ in the Old Testament were actually referring to za’atar. Among its many mentions, this powerful plant was said to have been commonly used in ritual cleansing ceremonies and is even referred to as a possible cure for leprosy.
Adored by Kings
The delightful aroma of za’atar wasn’t lost on Parthian Kings who loved it so much they had it made into a perfume. According to Pliny the Elder, an ancient author, naturalist and philosopher, za’atar was a key ingredient in creating a “Royal Perfume” that was widely used in the 1st century AD.
A physician’s friend
Doctors have long known of za’atar’s healing properties too. One of the forefathers of modern medicine, Hippocrates, used za’atar to treat everything from common colds to bronchitis as early as the 5th century BC. Many years later, renowned 12th century physician, Maimonides, had similar success with his use of za’atar based treatments.
A brain booster
People across the Middle East have long believed that za’atar provides a boost to your brain power, so much so that for generations children have been fed za’atar prior to taking exams. Modern science is starting to support these claims, with growing evidence suggesting that za’atar may boost neurotransmitter production, and as a result, improve mood, co-ordination and motor skills.
To this day, za’atar remains one of the most beloved elements of Middle Eastern culture and cuisine, nowhere more so than in Lebanon. For an authentic Lebanese za’atar experience, drop by Manoosh and try one of our many delicious offerings. We believe we have the best za’atar bread in Sydney!