Years ago, I was eating lunch at a restaurant in Jerusalem with my friend, Yahli, when the chef brought out a shallow bowl of what looked like finely chopped leafy greens. Yahli squealed with delight, so I knew right away that these weren't just any greens. She told me this was an herb salad made of a precious wild plant called za'atar. I took a bite and an intense woodsy freshness filled my mouth, coating my tongue and clearing my nasal passages with the same sweet, minty force of a powerful cough drop.
A few days later, while shopping at the open-air market, we came across a vendor selling various greenish-grey spice blends studded with sesame seeds. These were also all called za'atar. I was officially confused.
It turns out, za'atar exists in two forms; it is both an herb and a spice mix. The fresh herb, Origanum syriacum, is difficult to come by outside the Middle East, but the spice mix, which includes the herb in its dried form, is becoming more and more popular in the United States. These days you're likely to find za'atar (the spice mix) on the menus of restaurants and on the shelves of major grocery stores. Some of the imports are quite good, aggressively herbaceous, as they should be. I've found domestic mixes tend to be woefully insipid, or else too salty.
Rather than buy a jar of za'atar, I suggest you try your hand at mixing up your own custom blend. It's as easy as stirring together four ingredients: salt, sumac, toasted sesame seeds, and either dried thyme or dried oregano. (If you can find dried Origanum syriacum, then by all means use it!) Thyme, oregano, and za'atar (the herb) are all members of the mint family, and they share several of the same aromatic compounds. Whether you use dried thyme or dried oregano should depend simply on which herb you love most. Each cook will have her own preferences. I like lots of dried herbs, less sesame than is considered traditional, and a generous amount of flaky sea salt. If you've already started building your pantry with a jar or two of dried herbs, then making za'atar spice mix will be a breeze.
Keep a little stash of it near your stovetop and add with abandon to all kinds of dishes. The rousing flavor is especially welcome during the first meal of the day. Try it sprinkled over fried eggs, stirred into thick, strained yogurt, or scattered atop avocado toast. Za'atar can be moistened with olive oil and spread across warm pita bread. It can be added by the fistful to popcorn. For a quick appetizer, I like to pour a glug of olive oil into a small pan, add some olives, a wide strip of lemon rind, and a few pinches of za'atar, and then toss the olives around until they're well anointed. As you might imagine, za'atar makes a terrific spice rub for grilled lamb. It's also delicious sprinkled over fish.
Za'atar Spice Mix
Makes about 2 tablespoons
Because this spice mix tastes best fresh and takes only a few minutes to make, I like to stir up a small amount at one time, use it, and then make more. However, you can easily double, triple, or even quadruple this recipe. Packed into little jars, it would make a terrific gift for a friend who likes to cook.
1 teaspoon white sesame seeds
2 heaping tablespoons dried thyme, oregano, or some combination of the two
½ teaspoon sumac
¾ teaspoon flaky sea salt
In a small, dry pan, toast the sesame seeds over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until they are golden brown, about 3 minutes.
Using a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder, grind the dried thyme and sumac to a coarse powder.
Transfer the thyme-sumac mixture to a bowl and stir in the salt and toasted sesame seeds.