The Rise of Za’atar
At Restaurant Shaya
BY: Sarah Lubitz, Alumni Contributor
When I think of spices used at Shaya, the modern Israeli restaurant I work at in New Orleans, the first thing I think of is the smell of za’atar. Once I am fixated on that smell, I start thinking of specific things. I think of our pita bread, steaming as it is being taken from the oven. Our pita is served with an olive oil and za’atar mixture, and this is one of the first tastes of Shaya that you are presented with as a diner. I also cannot help but think of our Israeli salad, a bright and bold mixture, beautiful in its simplicity. Diced cucumbers and red onions are accompanied by quartered grape tomatoes. Za’atar, salt, fresh lemon zest, and a vinaigrette made with za’atar finish this salad. When ordered, more za’atar is sprinkled upon the salad. The smell of this herb blend is earthy, and it transports me to some place far away yet familiar.
My knowledge of za’atar was limited before starting my job at Shaya. I decided to taste it and to truly enjoy using it at work. But, since then, I have wanted to know more. Admittedly, writing this article made me finally get around to truly educating myself about this blend. I turned to Yotam Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem: A Cookbook to gain more knowledge. I quickly discovered that not only is za’tar a common spice blend, but it is a plant. During my reading, I learned that za’atar can be used fresh in the spring and in the summer, and it can be used dried and rehydrated throughout the rest of the year. When most people think of za’atar, they think of the spice blend that contains dried hyssop leaves, ground sumac, toasted sesame seeds, and salt. I turned to my boss, Shaya’s chef de cuisine, Zach Engel, to ask him about the blend we use at the restaurant. He told me that Shaya uses a Jordanian blend, which is composed of mostly thyme and oregano.
To gain even more knowledge of the za’atar plant, my chef loaned me his copy of The Spice Companion: A Guide to the World of Spices, written by the founder of La Boîte, Lior Lev Sercarz. In Lior’s book, he tells us that za’atar, Origanum syriacum, was an herb before it was a spice blend. He explains that this herb is the main component in the Middle Eastern spice blend of the same name, along with such spices as sesame, sumac, thyme, and other various spices, most of which vary from country to country. When it comes to be being harvested, za’atar is harvested in the wild, but is now being commercially cultivated because of the ever-growing demand for it. The most traditional uses for za’atar are the za’atar spice blend, marinated olives, tomato salad, all from the Middle East; Shanklish cheese in Lebanon; herbal tea in Oman. Za’atar is commonly used in flatbreads and in pita bread, as well as in mixtures with olive oil.
When it comes to using this herb in the kitchen, there are many options. Lior suggests adding crushed dried za’atar leaves to cheese biscuits before baking. He also suggests whisking together za’atar, honey, lemon juice, and olive oil, and then using it for basting a Cornish hen as it roasts. (I feel like this would work for any poultry.) At Shaya, as previously mentioned, we use it with oil for pita bread, and we use it in our Israeli salad. We have also used za’atar on fresh pita chips, and we have sprinkled it in salads. I look forward to learning of more uses for this spice blend that I have come to love. Hopefully, the next time you cook, you will keep za’atar in mind.