Za’atar is the name used to indicate thyme and oregano, but also a mixture of flavours, which main ingredients are oregano and/or thyme. The best flavour comes from the native variety Origanum Syriacum, which is native to the Middle East region and grows mainly in the East Mediterranean Region (Refer to wild Za’atar data sheet). In Al- Balqa, Za’atar mix consists of dry wild Za’atar leaves, sumac, sesame seeds, grounded roasted wheat (Qaliat Gameh), roasted chickpeas known locally as Gdamah, as well as ground Jameed (Fermented dried yogurt), which is special to the area (Refert to Qalyet Qameh and Jameed data sheets). It is sour and salty from the Sumac and Jameed, bitter from the Za’atar, with a nutty hint from the mix of sesame, the roasted wheat and dried chickpeas. The smell is distinctively nutty and pungent with a strong oregano aroma. A distinguishing feature of the Za’atar mixture in this area is the addition of dried Jameed: locals claim that the reason for this addition may be related to the desire not to waste the residual Jameed powder that remains at the bottom of the bags in which the mixture is stored.
There are no specific definitive mentions of Za’atar mix in written history, but traditionally, women throughout the Levant or Fertile Crescent made their own variations of za’atar. It is thought that it was brought to Morocco during the Islamic rule of Andaluz, as Za’atar mix is still used by families with Andalusian roots, especially the people of Fez. Recipes for spice mixtures, including Za’atar mix, were often considered a family recipe inherited from their ancestors, and each family adds their own secret ingredient to the mix. This could be one of the reasons Western observers of Middle Eastern and North African culinary cultures found it difficult to identify the names of the different spices used. The section about Mesopotamia of the “Cooking in Ancient Civilizations”, a book written by Cathy K. Kaufman, indicates that spice blends are some of the unidentified terms in the Yale Babylonian collection recipes. The section refers to a recipe that is similar to Za’atar mixture, consisting of dried thyme and marjoram combined with sesame, ground almonds, minced garlic and salt, that is used at the table to season food. Nowadays, in Jordan, Za’atar mix is deeply rooted in the food heritage of the country and is still consumed regularly. Markets sell local and imported Za’atar, since local one made by small scale producers doesn’t reach the mass market and less and less people are producing Za’atar for selling. Some locals still forge wild Za’atar from the wild and process the mix for their consumption, others plant oregano or/and thyme varieties in their lands and process the mix for their consumption and for selling it to friends and neighbours. Others buy fresh or dried Za’atar and make their own mix.
Traditional Za’atar mix preparation starts with forging or picking the fresh green Za’atar by cutting it from the stem which is collected into small bunches and hung upside down for drying. Once dry, the leaves are plucked, and the stems are discarded. The dried leaves are then placed in a wide deep container and rubbed by hand until they are coarsely grounded. Then some oil is added to the grounded Za’atar and rubbed together. In the meantime, the roasted wheat and ground chickpeas are both grounded separately, using a hand mill. The grounded Jameed can be collected from the storage bags or crushed and grounded using a mortar. All the ingredients are collected in the container then Sumac and sesame (usually half a kilo to each kilo of za’atar) are added and mixed using a wooden spoon until they are well blended. In Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, it is considered a staple breakfast item, eaten with olive oil and bread that is dipped in olive oil and then in Za’atar. The dried mix is also combined with olive oil and spread on a dough base and baked as a bread that is known as Manakeeshi Za’atar. Za’atar mix is usually made for personal consumption, however as less people are making their own mix, some of the producers make it to sell from their own homes. It can also be found in the village’s spice store (Attar).