Everybody with a taste for cooking is familiar with culinary herbs such as thyme, rosemary, mint or oregano. Great at enhancing the taste of foods, they are often packed with health-promoting phytonutrients and can also be a valuable substitute to salt in those wishing to control their sodium intake.
And they’re also fun to grow!
Za’atar is effectively a middle-eastern concoction of thyme, oregano, marjoram, sumac and sesame seeds, widely used in countries such as Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iran or Turkey.
I first came across it when living in the UAE, and having taken the plunge to buy some and trial it, I am now hooked to its flavour and add it to virtually every dish. The sumac is slightly bitter and really helps enhancing the taste of the other herbs contained in za’atar.
Add it to soup, stews and tomato sauces. Use it as a marinade for chicken or fish (make a paste with a little za’atar and olive oil). Sprinkle over scrambled eggs or an omelette. The sky is the limit!
So now, quid of za’atar health benefits?
Herbs and seeds contained in za’atar contain a variety of chemical compounds (called phenols) that are antioxidant to start with. Meaning they may help scavenging those nasty free radicals that contribute to cell damage. They also have anti-viral, anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties, fighting off microbes and other unwanted micro-organisms before they have a chance to elicit symptoms, thus giving your immune system a welcome rest.
Preliminary research on animals have also demonstrated that they these various phenolic compounds may also have anti-cancer and mood-enhancing properties, although human research is still needed to prove these claims.
It is worth mentioning that these beneficial chemical compounds are liberated during heating, so use it in your cooking rather than sprinkled over salads (use parsley, coriander, dill, spring onion or chives instead).
You can buy za’atar in middle-eastern grocery stores or you can make your own – here is a recipe, courtesy of Comptoir Libanais:
- 1 tsp dried thyme
- 1 tsp marjoram
- 1tsp dried oregano
- ¼ tsp sumac
- ¼ tsp sesame seeds
In a dry frying-pan, gently toast the sesame seeds until just golden. Tip into a mortar and add the sumac and the herbs. Pound with the pestle until everything is well ground. Store in an airtight container and use within a month.
Oven-roasted carrots with garlic and Za’atar!
- Peel and cut a few carrots in medium size batons and spread in an oven-dish.
- Add a few garlic cloves (no need to peel)
- Add 2 tbsp of good quality olive oil and a teaspoon of za’atar. Use a spoon to thoroughly coat the carrots and garlic with the herby oil.
- Roast in a 180°oven for 30 or 40 mn, until the garlic is cooked and the carrots have retained a bit of crunch. With a fork, remove the garlic skins (they should slide off easily) and squash the garlic clove into the carrots.
The slight bitterness of the za’atar does wonder in combination with the natural sweetness of the carrots. Totally more-ish.