Za’atar. Never has one herb contained so much history, political significance and variety. It has been used as a medicine, as a flavouring an accompaniment into the after life and in ritual ceremonies. It is the subject of debate, of laws, and makes for a delectable perfume. To understand its true significance makes it taste all the richer.
Za’atar is both a singular herb and a spice mix that grows wildly in the hills of Jerusalem. The herb is a member of the thyme and oregano family, and in Lebanon is indistinguishable; with ‘Zouba’ being a wild oregano plant, and ‘Green Zaatar’, a thyme plant. In other countries, Za’atar is an independent herb known in English as hyssop, that is often mixed with dried thyme, oregano, sumac (an acidic red berry), sesame seeds, salt and sometimes garlic. This mix is best made with Za’atar leaves that are grey-silver in colour, and fairly mature, with the flowers having blossomed. The flowers themselves can be eaten, and make a wonderful garnish for a salad.
Whilst the plant is most commonly dried and ground, then rubbed with a few tablespoons of good olive oil onto the skin of fish or chicken before roasting in the oven, or sprinkled onto a yogurt-textured cheese named ‘Labaneh’ with a few glugs of olive oil, to be mopped up by the freshest of pita breads, it is incredibly versatile. Arab cultures pick the young, long green leaves and bake them into a foccacia-like flatbread which is then cooked in a stone oven and eaten steaming hot. The leaves can also be used in salads, alongside scallions and seasoned with olive oil, salt and pepper.
Za’atar has been around for a while, dating back to biblical times, when (in Psalm 51), King David instructs to “Clean me with hyssop [Za’atar], and I will be clean”, referring to spiritual purification, as he had just committed adultery. Similarly, the herb is referenced in Leviticus – when the children of Israel are instructed to paint the doorposts of their houses with the blood of a sacrificial lamb, before escaping from Pharaoh’s rule in Egypt, under which they served as slaves (aka the Passover story) – and Numbers, which discusses ritual cleanliness ceremonies, such as those of the Red Heifer, a red-haired calf. There is also evidence of modern Za’atar herbs in the tomb of Tutankhamen, the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh. The herb stuck around such parts, and was a referenced plant growing in Judea in the 2nd century.
The Jewish medieval scholar and philosopher, Maimonides, famous for his remedies and nutritional advice, was a Za’atar enthusiast; prescribing the plant to cure a number of ailments, including to “open the mind”. Modern studies have found the herb to be an effective anti-septic and “brain food”. The latter, though under researched, is due to the carvacrol found in both thyme and oregano, which is believed to have mood enhancing properties, as has proven to be the case in rodents. Studies show that, when steadily fed to rates in slow doses, oregano extract heightened serotonin levels which affect and regulate sleep, appetite, aid learning and regulate mood, similar to the effect of antidepressants in humans. Similarly, in the Levant, children are encouraged to eat a Za’atar sandwich before exams, due to the belief that it makes the mind alert.
However, whilst, particularly in Israel, the herb still grows wildly, ecologists have found that it was on the verge of extinction, due to over harvesting, which triggered the passing of a law in the 1977s declaring it a protected species, meaning that those who over-harvest may be subjected to fines. This law found its way into the political sphere, when some Arab citizens claimed it to be “almost anti-Arab”, due to the Palestinian practices of wildly foraging the herb when in need (this law was also enforced in the West Bank).
Whatever the benefits, or the official history, it is rare to find a herb so engrained in so many cultures and cuisines. The versatility of the musky, earthy taste means that you can rarely go wrong utilising this ingredient and, who knows, your body may be all the better off for it!