Homemade Syrian Za’atar

by Amylee Amos MS, RDN, IFMCPRecipes

Za’atar is a spice mix native to the middle east. It is a staple in the middle eastern diet, served commonly with olive oil, bread, and vegetables. Different regions have their own unique take on za’atar, so recipes vary. Syrian za’atar is our favorite, as it includes herbs that have a potent neuroprotective effect. Additionally, though many za’atar blends include wheat flour, Syrian za’atar generally does not, making it stronger in flavor and acceptable for those following a gluten free diet.

The Health Benefits of Za’atar

Each ingredient in za’atar provides incredible health benefits. When combined, these ingredients become a natural pharmacy. The health effects of each of these medicinal foods are too vast to be covered comprehensively in this post, but here are some of the main benefits.

Thyme is the primary ingredient in za’atar. Thyme also happens to be one of the most antioxidant-rich herbs (1). Thyme has anticancer and cardioprotective effects. One of its many antioxidants, carvacrol, also has antibacterial and anticancer properties (2). Research has shown that thyme-infused olive oil reduced cholesterol and improved gut health in participants (3). Thyme supports the brain by promoting and fostering good gut health.

Cumin is another powerhouse spice. It yields antioxidant effects, has anticancer properties, functions as an antidiabetic compound by lowering blood glucose, and is a strong and selective antimicrobial, making it a helpful spice for promoting gut health (6). Anise has traditionally been used for digestive disorders, soothing stomach upset. It is also an antidiabetic compound (7).

Sumac, a deep purple spice with a tangy flavor, is for some a lesser known ingredient in za’atar. Sumac has a hypoglycemic effect, meaning that it can help lower blood glucose levels, as well as a cholesterol lowering effect. Research shows that sumac also works as a hypotensive agent, lowering blood pressure. Sumac is rich in polyphenols known to combat oxidative stress (4).

Sesame seeds are rich in brain healthy fats. Compounds found both in sesame seeds and savory have been shown to have hypolipidemic and hypotensive effects (4). Fennel seed provides potent antioxidant and anti-cancer properties (5).

Why Make You Own Za’atar?

Za’atar is easy to find in middle eastern and international markets. Additionally, regular grocery stores are beginning to carry za’atar as its popularity grows in the United States. So, why go through the trouble to make your own? In our experience, it’s challenging to find organic za’atar. By making your own, you control all of the ingredients and can ensure you are only utilizing organic herbs and seeds. Beyond that, the flavor of this homemade za’atar is absolutely incomparable to any store bought za’atar we have ever tried. The burst of flavors released from the light toasting of the herbs and seeds are truly remarkable. This recipe is worth the time and effort involved!

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup thyme
  • ¼ cup savory (or sub oregano)
  • 1 tbsp salt
  • ¼ cup cumin seeds
  • ¼ cup anise seeds
  • ⅛ cup coriander seeds
  • 1 tbsp fennel seeds
  • 1 cup raw sesame seeds
  • ½ cup sumac

Directions:

  1. Using a spice grinder, grind the thyme, savory, and salt until they form a fine powder. Set aside.
  2. Meanwhile, toast the cumin, anise, coriander, and fennel seeds in a dry cast iron skillet on medium low heat until fragrant.
  3. Set aside to cool, then blend the seeds in the spice grinder. Set aside.
  4. Next toast the sesame seeds over low heat in the dry cast iron skillet until they begin to brown, stirring often. Watch them closely, as they can burn quickly.
  5. Set the sesame seeds aside to cool.
  6. Add all ingredients to a large bowl and mix well.
  7. Store in an airtight container.
  8. Mix with a high quality extra virgin olive oil and serve as a dip for vegetables, or use as a coating for fish or meat.

References:

  1. Dragland, S., Senoo, H., Wake, K., Holte, K., & Blomhoff, R. (2003). Several culinary and medicinal herbs are important sources of dietary antioxidants.Journal of Nutrition,133(5), 1286–1290. doi.org/10.1093/jn/133.5.1286
  2. Sharifi-Rad, V., Varoni, E. M., Iriti, M., Martorell, M., Setzer, W. N., del Mar Contreras, M., Salehi, B., Soltani-Nejad, A., Rajabi, S., Tajbakhsh, M., & Sharifi-Rad., J. (2018). Carvacrol and human health: A comprehensive review.Phytotherapy Research,32(9), 1675–1687. doi.org/10.1002/ptr.6103
  3. Martín-Peláez, M., Mosele, J. I., Pizarro, N., Farràs, M., de la Torre, R., Subirana, I., Pérez-Cano, F. J., Castañer, O., Solà, R., Fernandez-Castillejo, F., Heredia, S., Farré, M., Motilva, M. J., & Fitó, M. (2017). Effect of virgin olive oil and thyme phenolic compounds on blood lipid profile: implications of human gut microbiota.European Journal of Nutrition,56(1), 119–131. doi.org/10.1007/s00394-015-1063-2
  4. Rouhi-Boroujeni, H., Heidarian, E., Rouhi-Boroujeni, H., Deris, F., & Rafieian-Kopaei, M. (2017). Medicinal Plants with Multiple Effects on Cardiovascular Diseases: A Systematic Review.Current pharmaceutical design,23(7), 999–1015.https://doi.org/10.2174/1381612822666161021160524
  5. Mohamad, R. H., El-Bastawesy, A. M., Abdel-Monem, M. G., Noor, A. M., Al-Mehdar, H. A., Sharawy, S. M., & El-Merzabani, M. M. (2011). Antioxidant and anticarcinogenic effects of methanolic extract and volatile oil of fennel seeds (Foeniculum vulgare).Journal of medicinal food,14(9), 986–1001.https://doi.org/10.1089/jmf.2008.0255
  6. Sowbhagya H. B. (2013). Chemistry, technology, and nutraceutical functions of cumin (Cuminum cyminum L): an overview.Critical reviews in food science and nutrition,53(1), 1–10.https://doi.org/10.1080/10408398.2010.500223
  7. Bukvicki, D., Gottardi, D., Prasad, S., Novakovic, M., Marin, P. D., & Tyagi, A. K. (2020). The Healing Effects of Spices in Chronic Diseases.Current medicinal chemistry,27(26), 4401–4420. https://doi.org/10.2174/0929867325666180831145800