Za’atar by any other name…would smell as sweet

by Sarah on March 18, 2009

Majorana syriaca
There is much confusing regarding this plant because of a wide variety of names attributed to it throughout history and before the useful taxonomic standardization by Linnaeus. It seemed that everyone had their own name for this plant, including hyssops, za’atar, eizov, rigani and thyme. Za’atar has been used by the local Arabs and Bedouins as an herb and medicinal plant but increased popularity has caused the plant to be picked almost to extinction. Za’atar is now a protected plant and it is illegal to collect it in the wild; cultivated za’atar is grown to supply the demand.
Fresh green za’atar can be bought in some shuks such as Nazareth and Lod. It is mixed with onions and used to stuffed triangular yeast pastries called sambusak. Sometimes it is also added to fresh salads or fried in a bit of olive oil and eaten with pita bread. The dried spice mix called za’atar (or holy hyssops) is made differently by each spice vendor but in large consists of za’atar (Majorana syriacia), thyme (Coridothymus capitatus), roasted sesame seeds, sumac (Rhus coriaria) and salt. It is very good on vegetables, pita bread, potatoes, eggs and on yogurt spread (labneh).
There are plenty of fake za’atar’s out there, made only with thyme or even parsley and citric acid. The parsley/citric acid version has a lighter color than the authentic za’atar because it lacks the red tinted ground sumac, which gives za’atar its characteristic sour taste. Fake Za’atar is often made with only thyme which has a similar aromatic profile. Za’atar is mentioned several times in the bible, as the plant used in religious rituals and Gil Marks does a good job at discussing this in detail (http://www.ou.org/shabbat/recipes/bo62.htm).
On a recent walk in the Judean hills of Jerusalem I found za’atar growing new spring leaves, in another month it we be flowering. Za’atar belongs to the Labiatae (or Lamiaceae) family, which includes mint, sage, basel, rosemarie and thyme and many other aromatic plants. A distinctive feature of all the plants of the Labiatae family are flowers with petals resembling upper and lower lips. Many plants of this family are aromatic and have square stems when cut crosswise, but this is not universal.
The locals attribute many medicinal properties to za’atar. It is said to strengthen the immune system, relieve headaches and stomach aches (which is something I heard personally from an Arab living in Al-Tira) and helps in a wide array of conditions including colds, nausea and cough (thyme also relieves cough because of the thymol). In short, a very useful herb to have around. According to a study carried out by An-Najah University of Nablus Majorana syriaca is one of the major medicinal plants used within the Palestinian population. Thymol, and carvacrol are the two main essential oils and give Za’atar its distinct aroma.
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