Wild Za’atar: Ancient and Essential Herb of the Middle East

Za’atar is an ancient herb of the Middle East, and it shares its name with a spice mix beloved in every Middle Eastern cuisine.

There is Jordanian za’atar, Palestinian za’atar, Lebanese za’atar, Israeli za’atar, Egyptian za’atar, Syrian za’atar, and really, every family has its own recipe for the mix. It usually contains dried leaves of the herb mixed with salt, sesame seeds and sumac, and sometimes thyme is added. Some Palestinian families in exile still name their own za’atar mix after their villages of origin. A typical breakfast shared by Middle Eastern people consists of freshly baked pita bread —  still warm from the oven —  sprinkled with za’atar and olive oil while sipping a cup of hot tea or a glass of a yogurt drink to which za’atar is also often added.

Most historians and botanists link “za’atar” to the “ezov” (translated as “hyssop”) that is mentioned several times in the Bible, mostly associated with Jewish rites of purification. Drawing from a passage in the Book of Kings regarding King Solomon’s wisdom encompassing everything great and small, “from the cedar tree that is in Lebanon even unto the hyssop that groweth out of the wall,” Jesus’ disciples regarded “ezov” as a symbol of what is humble.

The physician and philosopher Maimonides is said to have prescribed za’atar to his patients in the 12th century as a remedy for colds and other ailments.

 Traditional Arab bread requires a sprinkling of za’atar mix made with za’atar, sumac leaf, sesame seeds and salt. Serve with olives, labneh and cheese.

The Arabic word “za’atar” is believed to derive from ancient Egyptian “djaátá,” a culinary and medicinal herb, remnants of which have been found in the ancient necropolis of Hawara in Egypt, where the legendary labyrinth visited and described by Greek historian Herodotus some 2,500 years ago (and now buried under a thick layer of sand). The remnants have been identified as Origanum majorana, commonly known in the Middle East as “sweet marjoram” —  and this is where things get a little bit complicated.

Remnants of za’atar’s botanical ancestor were found at the necropolis of Hawara in Egypt. Using the Greek historian Herodotus’ descriptions, German Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher created the first pictorial representation in 1679 showing a maze at the center and 12 courts of the ancient necropolis.

The herb known as “za’atar” — the one that Baker Creek offers —  belongs to the species Origanum syriacum. It is widely grown in the Middle East, as well as in many places with a Mediteranean climate. Its flavor conveys hints of oregano, thyme and marjoram, and it is the main ingredient in the “za’atar” spice mix. “Wild za’atar,” also called “wild marjoram,” is the species Origanum vulgare in its wild form found throughout the Middle East and some prefer it for making “za’atar” spice mix. 

Za’atar — the spice mix — has a reputation for being “brain food,” and modern science seems to be bearing this out. Sumac is rich in gallic acid, a polyphenol that research suggests has strong antioxidant properties, and quercetin, a flavonoid with anti-inflammatory benefits. In addition, za’atar — the herb — contains carvacrol, which studies suggest can boost mood and cognition in mice.

The plant is becoming depleted in some areas. The state of Israel has declared it endangered, and forbids its harvest from the wild. Strains of Origanum vulgare have been domesticated and are widely grown world wide under the name “oregano,” famous in Italian cuisine. 

Try this ancient herb for making your own personal za’atar mix that will bring a Middle Eastern touch to your cooking. The plant is easy to grow and hardy in most places in the U.S. Just be sure to give it a sunny space and well-drained soil!

Find wild za’atar seeds here.

An ideal culinary houseplant, easy to grow in containers or a kitchen garden.