Food for the mind: Middle Eastern Za’atar Pizza

A couple weeks ago I saw a lot of snow; more snow than I had seen in my entire life. That doesn’t say much since I grew up in Miami, but it was a big heap of snow. Around 50 to 70 inches total, according to the Washington Post. My car was completely covered and I was snowbound for almost 10 days. It was the perfect excuse to stay in my PJs, not shave, tweet about snowmageddon, snuggle in bed with a few good books, knock movies off my Netflix queue, and cook — I kept busy.

za’atar (زعتر) from Aleppo

My pantry is usually well-stocked with boxes of pasta, cans of tomato, rice, chickpeas, Oreos and other essentials; probably enough food to last me an entire month, but I wasn’t in the mood for any of it. As much as I love Oreos dunked in cold milk, or an over-sized bowl of pasta, I was craving something different. I wanted something warm and billowy, chewy and filling. I was thinking bread. I had all the ingredients for dough and the obscenely large bag of za’atar that I had brought with me from Aleppo. With these, I was going to make manaqeesh.

If you’re Middle Eastern, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Manaqeesh (pronounced mana-eesh) is the Middle Eastern equivalent of pizza, usually eaten for breakfast, and probably one of my favorite foods of all time. This is what I grew up eating. I remember my mom used to tell my brothers and me that za’atar is food for the mind and good for your memory, so we happily ate. I’m not sure whether the za’atar lost its effects on me, but it was delicious: a combination of tangy flavors from the herbs and a warm nuttiness from the toasted sesame seeds. It’s something you have to try. While I was in Aleppo, my most memorable breakfasts included za’atar manaqeesh (مناقيش بالزعتر) or mamounieh (مأمونية), but I’ll probably talk more about the latter in a different post.

typical breakfast in Aleppo, Syria

Bakeries in the Middle East offer different types of manaqeesh. Some have cheese, others have meat. My grandmother likes ones that are topped with a slightly spicy red pepper paste. Those are good, but my favorite are the traditional manaqeesh slathered with a mix of olive oil and za’atar.

mise en place

The preparation for this dish is exquisitely simple. The dough is the same as the one I used for the spinach fatayer I blogged about a couple months back. I’ve also gotten away with using pizza dough when I’m in a bind, but the results aren’t the same as the original manaqeesh dough that uses oil and milk. If you’re pressed for time you could do what my mom often did, which is mix za’atar with extra virgin olive oil and roll it up on pita bread as an afternoon snack or sometimes as a quick breakfast whenever my brothers and I took too long to get ready for school.

za’atar + extra virgin olive oil

The word za’atar (زعتر) in Arabic literally refers to a variety of wild herbs in the same family as thyme, marjoram and oregano. What is commonly referred to as za’ater in the Levant is the spice mix made from this dried herb after it is combined with toasted sesame seeds, sumac, salt and other spices.

before baking

I never measure how much oil I add to the za’atar. You just need to make sure that it’s enough to make a smooth paste so that it doesn’t dry up in the oven.

Za’atar Manaqeesh (مناقيش بالزعتر)

The trick to making the manaqeesh, like any pizza, is to add the dough to a scorching hot oven. If you have a pizza stone, that is ideal. Otherwise you can pre-heat an upside down baking sheet in a hot oven and add the manaqeesh to the reverse side. Once the dough cooks through, remove the manaqeesh from the oven and enjoy. saha w hana (صحة و هنا), bon appetit!

Za’atar Manaqeesh

yields approx 16 small pies


  • 1/2 recipe of fatayer dough
  • 3/4 cup za’atar
  • 1/2-1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

Putting them all together

  1. Prepare the dough as described in the fatayer recipe
  2. Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.
  3. Mix together the za’atar and the olive oil
  4. Roll out 1/4 inch thick disks and top with za’atar and oil mixture.
  5. Bake for 7-10 minutes or until the dough is golden brown


14 thoughts on “Food for the mind: Middle Eastern Za’atar Pizza

  1. These look quite exquisite. I don’t know why I always want something red on my pizza, but za’atar *and* spicy red pepper paste sound phenomenal.

  2. Looks incredibly yummy! AAAAAAAAAAAAArgh!

    But nothing beats freshly roasted za3tar btw! My aunt makes her own, it tastes incredible

  3. Thanks, Manggy! You’ll have to let me know how the combination turns out 😀

    @KJ are you serious? Now, I want to learn how to roast my own! Does your aunt have a recipe or general steps for roasting her own za3tar??

    C&C, enjoy!

  4. I LOVE manaqeesh! I can’t think of anything better to start the day! I noticed your zaatar was reddish in hue, mine is more on the dark green side. Is it the photo or do they put somthing in Aleppo like more sumac or some red pepper? I am curious! I bought three bags of zaatar in addition to the one I brought back from Lebanon homemade, and none of them have this color.

  5. you took me back to old times ,when we used to buy manaish early in morning before starting oure jurny to the Ufrates river for hunting and fishing, 40 years ago

  6. @Joumana- Thanks for the comment! The za3tar I used in these shots is indeed slightly red in hue 😀 That’s probably from the sumac and other ingredients that they add to the mix. It’s probably too small to read off the photograph, but the mix I bought in Aleppo contains: sumaq (سماق), za3tar leaves (ورق زعتر), fennel (شمرة), anise (يانسون), lemon salt (ملح الليمون), salt (ملح), cumin (كمون), roasted garbanzo beans? (قضامة), coriander (كزبرة), sesame seeds (سمسم). I had never heard of anyone using قضامة for a za3tar mix to be honest, but I thought the mix had great flavor. I called my sito and asked her questions about why this mix contains so many ingredients and she said that it’s a particular style of mix that they make in Aleppo — it helps round out some of the bitterness in the za3tar leaves. She also mentioned that in Lebanon you get a greener za3tar because the color of the za3tar leaves are slightly lighter, but also because they don’t add as many ingredients to the mix. I also have some Jordanian za3tar at home, but that’s closer in color to the mix I brought with me from Aleppo. I hope this helps 😀

    Thanks, Alta! I hope you get to try it at some point; it’s a wonderful flavor 🙂

    Marhaba Karkour! Thanks for sharing! Nothing beats the manaish from the local bakeries — I wish I could have one of those monstrous brick ovens in my tiny apartment so that I can make manaish whenever I want 😀

  7. I’ve just discovered this post and it’s answered a question that’s been plaguing me! I live in Sydney in Australia and have recently moved into a suburb with a large number of Assyrian Iraqis (as well as large numbers people from Laos, Iran, the Balkans and South America – I think we’re the most multicultural suburb in Sydney now). There’s a bakery that makes good manaqeesh so I have one for breakfast some Saturdays with a glass of ayran. At home I’ve been sprinkling some zaatar over all sorts of things. I’d gone through a bag of ‘green zaatar’ (thyme, sumac and sesame seeds) which was imported from Lebanon and so I bought a bag of the ‘red zaatar’ which tastes quite different – my Assyrian friend told me it was more of a Syrian-style zaatar and had spices in it. I could work out most of them but there’s one taste I couldn’t till now: the roasted garbanzo beans (or chickpeas as we call them here). Thanks for clearing up what this mystery taste is!

    Incidentally (and probably heretically!) zaatar of either sort is fabulous over hot popcorn – about two heaped teaspoons over a big bowl of still-hot popcorn is fabulous.

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