Tourist Tip #248 / Za'atar, the Ubiquitous Spice

This quintessential herb of the region is found on everything from pita to meat and is even mentioned in the Bible.

Israelis are crazy about their favorite green herb, and no, it’s not the kind you smoke.

Za’atar, one of the most ubiquitous and fragrant flavors found in Israeli food, is actually a mixture of herbs. The base is dried and powdered hyssop (origanum syriacum, a distant cousin of mint) that can be mixed with dried thyme, and sometimes oregano, marjoram or even sumac. Most za'atar mixtures also have sesame seeds and salt.

Za'atar can be found in all sorts of savory goods in these parts, from labneh (strained yogurt) to chicken dishes to toasted, roasted pita breads.

This spice mixture has a long and noble history, even getting a shout-out in Psalm 51 when David, having committed adultery, pleaded, “Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean.”

While these days, za’atar isn’t going to help erase your transgressions, its delicious, healthy flavor might be enough to make you forget your worries for a bit.

For a totally traditional bite, sprinkle it on pita dough that has first been dipped in olive oil. Then simply bake, cool, and bite. Yum. It’s also a fantastic component to dry rubs for meat, lovely when mixed into fresh veggies for a salad, and a fun and tangy way to add some color and extra taste to scrambled eggs or roasted veggies.

Za’atar also makes a wonderful souvenir for the folks back home: you can stock up while visiting the spice stalls at Israel’s open-air markets.

Dan Peretz