There is perhaps no other Palestinian spice that resonates with such widespread infamy and affection as Za’atar. At its root, Za’atar is the Arabic word for oregano. However, it is sometimes used to describe other related Middle Eastern herbs such as thyme and basil. It has also been known historically to reference the hyssop plant. Yet, Za’atar in Palestine usually refers to the popular blend of spices commonly known as Zaatar Dukka.
Before diving in too deep, we'd like to clarify a few common terms below:
Za’atar akhdar (fresh oregano) - green oregano leaves used for pastries, salads, and comforting drinks. A common treatment for a cough is boiling water plus za’atar akhdar and honey!
Za’atar nashef (dry oregano) - dried oregano leaves commonly used for sauces, spice rubs, and marinades.
Za’atar Dukka - a very popular blend of spices using dried oregano, sumac, sesame seeds, and various other spices. It is extremely common and often served with olive oil as a dip for pitas and breads at breakfast.
Za’atar is used for anything and everything in Palestinian cuisine! You will find it in all sorts of breads (like Manakeesh - a flatbread topped with a za’atar blend and olive oil), pastries, salads, sandwiches, spice rubs, as well as drinks and natural remedies for a cold or flu. High in antioxidants, the herbs in za’atar are traditionally seen as cleansing and are thought to keep the body strong and the mind alert. Children are sometimes even encouraged to eat a za’atar sandwich before an exam to help prepare!
Za’atar bread, also known as ‘fatayer fallahi,’ meaning villagers’ pie, is a popular Palestinian pastry typically made in spring. It is an oily yet crunchy flatbread stuffed with za’atar akhdar, onions, and sumac.
Below you can watch an excellent video as to how it is made!
You can thank Chef in Disguise for this marvelous Palestinian recipe.
Za’atar has woven itself not only into Palestinian food, but Palestinian history, memory, and identity itself. Za’atar is a resilient plant. Much like the olive tree, its strong and defiant nature has become a symbol of prosperity and resistance to injustice for the Palestinian people.
Za’atar grows in mountains. You will typically find the wild plant growing out of cracks within stone slabs. Even if you cut off all the stems, leaving only the roots, the plant will grow back again in full. Its aroma is strong and its taste unmistakable and firey. Palestinian poets and authors have used za’atar as a symbol of Palestinian heritage - holding on to one’s roots and never giving up, even against all odds. The plant itself represents Palestine and is why travelers will often carry a little bag of za’atar with them when traveling away from home.
The peppery charisma of za’atar finds its way into Palestinian children’s lunches, poems, songs, and even bedtime stories. Za’atar reminds a Palestinian to stay connected with their roots and to hold the dream alive of living prosperously, growing wild and free in nature and among the rocks under the glow of a warm sun.