The global spread of the coronavirus is disrupting travel. Stay up to date on the science behind the outbreak>>

How to cook with za'atar, according to food writer Yasmin Khan

Whether you use the herb alone or as part of a spice mix, this Middle Eastern favourite adds a zesty punch to all manner of dishes.

By Yasmin Khan
Published 10 Apr 2019, 18:00 BST, Updated 16 Aug 2021, 14:57 BST
Za’atar is the name of both a wild herb (a variety of thyme) that grows throughout ...

Za’atar is the name of both a wild herb (a variety of thyme) that grows throughout the Middle East, and an aromatic spice mix that incorporates it.

Photograph by Getty Images

I first fell in love with za’atar’s zesty charm when visiting the West Bank more than a decade ago, where I enjoyed it on a daily basis, either sprinkled over bowls of silky hummus, or used as a flavoursome topping for mana’eesh — the small round flatbreads that are found in every Palestinian neighbourhood. It has a heady aroma that manages to feel both earthy and enlivening and gives dishes a hit of astringency and hints of citrus, marjoram and oregano.

Za’atar is the name of both a wild herb (a variety of thyme) that grows throughout the Middle East, and an aromatic spice mix that incorporates it, along with sumac, sesame seeds and salt. It’s the latter that’s most commonly used in cooking. Since my first proper encounter with za’atar, it’s become an essential ingredient in my kitchen cupboard, and I use it on everything from marinating meat to roasting vegetables. I’ve even been known to travel with small pots of the stuff as it’s so versatile, it allows me to spruce up all manner of dishes quickly.

When buying a za’atar spice mix, be sure to look for versions that have been made in the Middle East, as British supermarket versions can tend to be a bit dry and woody. I only ever use the Zaytoun brand, which is ethically sourced from Palestinian women’s cooperatives and is easy to find in the UK. In my opinion, it’s completely unmatched in terms of flavour and texture.

1. As a dip
The classic Palestinian way to eat za’atar is to place the herb mix in a small bowl, some extra virgin olive oil in another, and then tear off chunks of bread, dipping them first in the oil and then in the tangy mixture.

2. In a meat marinade
To spruce up your Sunday roast, mix a couple of tablespoons of za’atar with extra virgin olive oil and rub it all over a chicken or a leg of lamb before popping it in the oven.

3. As a dressing
Za’atar has a special affinity with aubergines, red peppers and courgettes. Mix it with extra virgin olive oil, chopped olives and capers for a punchy dressing to drizzle over roast veg.

4. Sprinkled on grilled fish
The tanginess of za’atar works really well with oily fish such as salmon. Sprinkle the herb mix generously over fillets and then grill them for a quick and flavoursome dinner.

5. With breakfast
Za’atar and eggs are a marriage made in heaven. For a punchy, deeply savoury breakfast, try topping fried or scrambled eggs, or even omelettes, with crumbled feta and a generous pinch of za’atar.

Learn how to make Yasmin’s roast red pepper with za’atar

Yasmin Khan is the author of Zaitoun: Recipes and Stories from the Palestinian Kitchen (£26, Bloomsbury).

Find us on social media

Facebook | Instagram | Twitter

Read More

You might also like

How Berlin is blazing a trail in zero-waste, sustainable food
Is Tucson the best city for Mexican food in the US?
How to make it: Emiko Davies’ torta con i ciccioli di Nonna Maria (Granny Maria’s lard cake) recipe
What they're eating in Washington, DC
Pancake Day: five of the best pancake alternatives

Explore Nat Geo

  • Animals
  • Environment
  • History & Culture
  • Science
  • Travel
  • Photography
  • Space
  • Adventure
  • Video

About us


  • Magazines
  • Newsletter
  • Disney+

Follow us

Copyright © 1996-2015 National Geographic Society. Copyright © 2015-2021 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved