Herby, nutty, crispy, earthy, tangy Za’atar is the quintessential seasoning of the Israeli kitchen. Za’atar, part of the oregano family of herbs, grows wildly in Israel and is native to the Levant, Iraq, Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula. The herb and the seasoning is also popular in North Africa, Turkey and Armenia. Traditionally, each region had their own recipe for the Za’atar blend, usually including any combination of dried Za’atar, oregano, thyme or marjoram and sesame seeds, sumac and salt.
Za’atar is wonderful as a seasoning on hummus, eggs and vegetables and in salads, as well as grilled meats and chicken. Za’atar is essential on labne, a tangy, creamy cheese made from strained yogurt, and it is often sprinkled on “Bulgarit” and “Ts’fatit,” the feta like cheeses which are served with pretty much every dairy meal in Israel. The Lebanese dry-cure little balls of labne and roll them in Za’atar for a delicacy called “shanklish.” All over the Middle East, Za’atar is baked into or on top of pita, Laffa, soft sesame rings and on top of crunchy Ka’ak cookies. If the herb hasn’t been baked into the bread, then it is prepared as a dip with olive oil to accompany the bread.
Za’atar is first mentioned in the book of Exodus, Sefer She’mot, when the Israelites are leaving Egypt and they use Ezov (hyssop branches) to daub blood on their door posts. Ezov/Za’ater is mentioned in connection with the ashes of the Parah Adumah (red heifer) and other ritual purification rites in the Mishkan (tabernacle). King David, after he has sinned with Batsheva, extols the purifying power of the herb, saying “Cleanse me with Ezov and I shall be purified.” The Mishnah refers to “ezov” as an ingredient in the food of the Judea region. And Maimonides in his great work, the Mishneh Torah, comments on the cuisine of his day, saying that the Za’atar that is used to “season their stews” is the same “ezov” that is mentioned in the Torah. He prescribed Za’atar to his patients for it’s health inducing properties.
Nowadays, we know that Za’atar is full of healthful antioxidants. It is also full of incredible flavor. If you’re firing up the grill this Lag Ba’Omer, try this recipe for Za’atar Pargiyot (boneless chicken thighs). This marinade recipe combines Za’atar with fresh lemon juice and results in both citrusy fresh and herbaceous flavor, not to mention incredibly moist chicken. You can also prepare your chicken in a cast iron skillet, which leaves a lovely golden crust. Sprinkle some za’atar on your roasted broccoli and sweet potatoes and you have a deliciously tasty and simply modern dinner!
Rachel’s Lemony Za’atar Pargiyot
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 lemon, juiced
3 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 tablespoons Za’atar, plus more for sprinkling
1 teaspoon turmeric
Salt and pepper to taste
6 skinless, boneless chicken thighs (about 2 pounds), patted dry
Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat the broiler.
Cover a baking sheet with foil.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the oil, lemon juice, crushed garlic, Za’atar, turmeric, salt and pepper.
Place chicken thighs in the marinade and let sit for 15 minutes.
Place chicken thighs on the baking sheet and pour juices over the chicken.
Broil for 10-15 minutes, until juices run clear.
Or Grill on Bbq, or saute until golden on cast iron pan
Sprinkle cooked chicken with Za’atar.
Serve with rice and Israeli salad or roasted broccoli and sweet potatoes.
Rachel Sheff and Sharon Gomperts have been friends since high school. They love cooking and sharing recipes. They have collaborated on Sephardic Educational Center projects and community cooking classes. Follow them on Instagram @sephardicspicegirls and on Facebook at Sephardic Spice SEC Food.