Za'atar lemon chicken - recipe - A kitchen in Istanbul

Vidar Bergum is a food writer and cookbook author based in Istanbul, Turkey.

With a good spice blend, you need little else to make dinner exciting. And few – if any – spice blends are as good as za’atar, the Middle Eastern blend of wild herbs, sesame seeds and sumac. The perfect way to add lots of flavour to a quick midweek dinner of lemon za’atar chicken.

Za’atar. It only takes a single encounter to understand why this spice mix is so beloved in the Middle East and beyond. Aromatic and intriguing, but without being too dominating, its use is as extensive as its popularity. Try it in olive oil for dipping bread, on top of labneh or hummus, with the breakfast egg.

Or, as in this case, in a marinade.

What is za’atar

The main ingredient of za’atar is…za’atar.

Za’atar (zahter if you’re in Turkey) is a group of wild herbs that grow in the Middle East. Its flavour is reminiscent of thyme, oregano or marjoram but may vary quite significantly from one area to another.

It is the main ingredient of the spice mix which, somewhat confusingly, is also called za’atar. When people talk about za’atar, though, they tend to mean the spice mix rather than the herb.

Photo: Bahar Kitapci

Huge meze spread seen from above
Photo: Bahar Kitapci
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Za'atar - A kitchen in Istanbul

Za'atar

A spice mix consisting of the Middle Eastern wild herb also called za'atar (or zahter), sesame seeds, sumac and salt.

A word of caution, though. Some commercial brands add flour or other cheap, flavourless fillers and top up with artificial flavour enhancers, presumably to reduce production costs. This invariably reduces the quality, so always check the ingredient list if you don’t know the brand and buy the best quality you can afford.

Za’atar from Palestine is particularly prized. I am lucky enough to live a stone’s throw from Istanbul’s 350-years-old-and-still-running spice market and buy Syrian za’atar there.

Lemon za’atar chicken – a notch up from lemon and thyme

I’ve always loved lemon and thyme chicken (vegetarians aside, who doesn’t?). It’s such a classic flavour combination it’s hard to tire of it.

Za’atar does much of the same, adding a fragrant and herby note to the chicken. What’s better, it’s equally addictive!

When I think about it, it’s been some time since I’ve had lemon and thyme chicken. I prefer za’atar these days.

Za'atar & lemon chicken - recipe - A kitchen in Istanbul

I usually serve this chicken with a simple shepherd’s salad or green leaves with yoghurt sauce. Bulgur and rice also work well. As indeed do potato wedges or chips – or even a mixture of oven roasted veggies you fancy or happen to have lying around in the fridge.

If you can’t get hold of za’atar, or have run out and need an instant substitute, a mixture of thyme, oregano, sesame seeds, sumac and salt can be used. It won’t be the same. But it’ll still be very good.

The recipe serves 2-3, depending on what else you’re offering up.

Za'atar & lemon chicken - recipe - A kitchen in Istanbul

Lemon za'atar chicken

Ingredients

  • 2 chicken breasts, boneless and skinless (c. 400-500 g)
  • 3 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 Tbsp za’atar
  • 1/2 lemon, in wedges
  • salt and pepper

Instructions

  1. Separate the mini filet from the breast. Slice the breasts horizontally into two equally thick parts. Put all the chicken slices side by side between two layers of plastic wrap and beat with an appropriate utensil until even thickness; I use a flat-bottomed frying pan.
  2. Make the marinade by whisking the olive oil, 2 tsp za’atar, 1/2 tsp salt and 1/4 tsp black pepper in a bowl. Emerge the chicken fillets in the marinade, making sure it is as evenly distributed as you can be bothered to make it, cover and refridgerate – overnight if you can, though an hour or two will do.
  3. Fry the fillets in a hot griddle pan or on a barbecue until charred and cooked through, 1-2 minutes or more on each side. Arrange on a platter, sprinkle the remaining 1 tsp za’atar on top and serve immediately with lemon wedges on the side. Squeeze the lemon juice over the chicken before eating.

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Hey, there!

I’m Vidar. For the past few years, I’ve been exploring the foods of Turkey, the Middle East and beyond from my house in Balat, Istanbul. Let me show you around!

My books

I’ve published two books on Turkish and Middle Eastern food, available in Norwegian and German.

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Vidar Bergum on the front porch of his home, drinking tea, with a street cat eating something on the street in front of him