Homemade Za’atar Spice Blend

A family recipe shared among friends makes the meal—and the memories—all the more special.

Food + Styling + Text by Michaela Hayes

The first time I learned how to make the spice blend za’atar was from my friend Jamal in college. Originating in the Middle East, za’atar is a blend of spices that can be very personal, differing from family to family and region to region. Jamal’s blend, learned from his mother, was a strong reminder of his family and home in Palestine. His family’s za’atar was also a source of pride, as he traded care packages from home with friends, Palestinian and non. “I think he got a better deal,” he told me with a wink, after one such za’atar trade for a friend’s kibbeh.

Making and eating za’atar always reminds me of Jamal, and of his joy and generosity. It also reminds me of his candor about being away from home, and missing the house and home of his ancestors, which was demolished, like many other Palestinian homes, in the development of Israel. Like the spice blend, my emotions surrounding these memories and histories are complex, bitter, and sweet.

Years after I met Jamal, I learned that the sumac (a key ingredient in this za’atar) I had been buying at the store is readily available around my home in the Northeast U.S. When I see the sumac ripening in the fields and along the roadsides, I know it is near time to go foraging. We pick the scarlet red plumes of fuzzy sumac berries, giving some to our kids to eat along the way. Also known as lemonade berry, sumac is a tart treat on its own.

We dry the sumac in a dark, cool place and, once dried, I clean the plumes of their berries, blend them in a spice grinder, and strain them of their tiny, hard pits. The result is a fluffy, scarlet powder, ready to be mixed into this tart, earthy za’atar blend.


You will need:
2 tablespoons dried thyme
2 teaspoons sumac
2 teaspoons toasted sesame seeds
1 teaspoon dried marjoram
1/2 teaspoon salt

  1. Mix all the ingredients together.
  2. Sprinkle on hummus. Mix into dough, and bake into bread. Toast pita and top with labneh and za’atar for za’atar pizza. Or mix za’atar with oil and toss with roasted vegetables.