Are you wondering if za’atar and harissa are the same? Or if you can substitute one spice blend for the other? We’re here to set the record straight about za’atar vs. harissa with everything you need to know about these two different, but equally delicious, Middle Eastern ingredients.
Za’atar and harissa are two pantry-staple ingredients in the cuisines of the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. But aside from being two consumable items, they’re totally different when it comes to flavor, texture, history, and looks.
Here’s what you need to know about the difference between za’atar and harissa, including whether you can substitute one for the other.
Za’atar vs Harissa: What’s the Difference?
From flavor to ingredients to how you use them, there are several important differences and similarities between these two Middle Eastern spice blends.
Za’atar Spice Blend
Let’s start with our *unbiased* favorite between the two: za’atar. Za’atar is typically sold as a dried seasoning.
It’s made with:
- Dry Mediterranean thyme, also known as za’atar
- Dry oregano leaves
- Sesame seeds
- Dry sumac
Flavorwise, za’atar is herby, savory, earthy, and has a bit of a lemony kick from the sumac spice. You can find za’atar sold as a dry seasoning blend, which is used to infuse simmered sauces, soups, and stews with flavor. Or used to bring air-popped popcorn to new heights. Za’atar seasoning blend is also sold as a pourable olive oil-blended condiment, which is great for drizzling over salads, smearing onto sandwiches, or serving as a dip.
Za’atar has a crunchy texture from the toasted sesame seeds that sets it apart from other seasoning blends you might be familiar with. It’s an easy way to add both texture and flavor to your meals with a single ingredient.
Harissa, on the other hand, is almost always sold in a jar as a paste. Harrisa comes from Tunisia in Northern Africa, where it’s made by blending a mixture of roasted hot chili peppers into a smooth and potent sauce. Some harissa blends include flavorings like garlic and herbs, or dried spices like cumin, coriander, and caraway. Usually, the ingredients are blended with olive oil to yield a light, fluffy texture.
Some versions of harissa, called rose harissa, are made with dried rose petals. This gives the seasoning blend a lightly floral and more delicate flavor.
Harissa is used to add spice and piquant flavor to simmered stews, roasted meats, and vegetables. Less spicy versions of the paste can be used as a spread all on its own.
Substituting Middle Eastern Spice Blends
Can you substitute za’atar for harissa or vice-versa? The truth is that the two ingredients have such distinct flavor profiles that they’re not easily interchangeable in most recipes.
Za’atar adds a verdant, grounding note to things like our yogurt dip or a light and zesty tuna salad sandwich. Harissa, on the other hand, with its powerful blend of hot peppers, might overpower more delicate flavors. It’s more commonly used in rich dishes like stews, braises and to flavor meat and seafood that can stand up to the spice.
Recipes in which you may be able to swap harissa for za’atar include more neutral dishes like eggs or roasted vegetables. Both of these Middle Eastern spice blends lend rich, Mediterranean-flavor to anything they touch. So while the flavor will certainly be different if you substitute harissa for za’atar or vice-versa, it’s better to have some zest on your plate than none!
If you love harissa for its scoopable, spreadable texture and versatile flavor, you’ll really love our spicy za’atar oil condiment. It’s just as easy to use as a jar of harissa and adds an entirely different Mediterranean taste to your dish.