This is how Middle Eastern dishes get their bold flavor.
If you’ve ever eaten Middle Eastern or North African cuisine, there’s a good chance you’ve tasted za’atar (even if you didn’t know it). Za’atar is a spice blend common in foods from these regions. It’s used to season meats, vegetables, bread, savory yogurt, and dips (hello, hummus!). In other words, you can use za’atar on just about everything.
The exact recipe varies by country. For example, some countries add cumin, the spice we commonly associate with Tex-Mex taco seasoning, or savory, an herb similar to thyme.
In this video, cardiologist and chef Mike Fenster, MD, shows the Lebanese variation of this recipe. Za’atar from Lebanon traditionally uses sumac, a berry that is ground into a vibrant red powder and gives dishes a bright, citrusy flavor.
Along with the sumac, Dr. Mike adds thyme, marjoram, oregano, hyssop, and sesame seeds. Hyssop is a lesser known herb, and it’s more commonly used for medicinal purposes than cooking. Hyssop tastes similar to mint, and it’s a pow of flavor, so you only need a little. (FYI, it’s pretty tricky to track down in stores, so even though Dr. Mike recommends it, he’ll forgive you if you have to omit it.)
It might feel a little strange to add sesame seeds to a spice blend. After all, the United States tends to use them only for hamburger buns and bagels. However, sesame seeds are commonly used for their toasty, nutty flavor in Middle Eastern cooking.
Za’atar spice is especially known for its use as a rub on poultry and lamb. You could also spread it on pita bread with olive oil, almost like a Middle Eastern breadstick. You could bake the za’atar right into the dough, too. In fact, one common street food in the Middle East, called ka’ak, is a soft bread with a za’atar filling.
Oh, and don’t be shy with the za’atar. Middle Eastern cuisine favors bold, powerful spices, and it tends to be heavy-handed with the seasoning (in a good way). Instead of reaching for the salt, do your heart a favor and fall in love these mega-flavorful spice blends.
Dr. Fenster is a board-certified interventional cardiologist and chef.
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One of the common spices
in Lebanon is za'atar.
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If you go to different regions in Lebanon,
you'll find different combinations.
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I like, and almost all of them will
always contain some element of thyme.
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There will also be usually some
combination of marjoram or
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oregano, I like to use
a little bit of both.
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I like, if you can find it,
the ancient herb hyssop.
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It's pretty strong, so
I like to use just a little bit of it.
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You'll always find a little bit of sesame,
and the base for
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this wonderful spice is sumac.
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So what I'd like to do is,
I always like to take my za'atar spice and
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just go ahead and rub it on the lamb.
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And you wanna really work it in there.
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Now you wanna let this rest at least
four hours for those spices and
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flavors to work their way into the meat.
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The salt's gonna help break
down those proteins, and
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transform it as it's slow cooked.
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And I can just take my fingers and you can
see it is literally just falling apart,
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that's how juicy it is.
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Look at that, perfectly cooked.
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