The fiery Yemeni-Jewish pepper paste called zhug is an essential condiment in Israel. Zhug has been compared to North African harissa, Italian gremolata or pesto, Indian chutney and Latin salsa verde. Zhug shares chile peppers, cilantro, parsley, garlic, and cumin flavors with its Argentinian cousin chimichurri. Zhug can be as hot as you like it depending on the quantity and hotness of the peppers added. I use mild jalapeno peppers for this recipe.
Zhug can be used as a pepper sauce over falafel, shawarma, grilled or roasted meat, fish or vegetables, as a marinade, or drizzled over pita, bread, soups, stews, or couscous. I add lemon juice and olive oil to make zhug a vinaigrette to lend flavor and heat to a variety of salads and sandwiches. The core ingredients in zhug are cilantro, fresh chiles, garlic, cumin, cardamom, sugar, salt and pepper. Variations include added parsley, dried chiles, red pepper flakes, caraway seeds, olive or sunflower oil, water, cloves, lemon juice, turmeric, or even curry powder. Zhug is usually served with pureed or grated tomato although only one recipes I have calls for tomatoes in the recipe.
Award winning food writer and cookbook author Paula Wolfert describes the most amusing anecdote about how zhug is traditionally made in her 1998 cookbook Mediterranean Grains and Greens: “True zhug should be made with a mazhag, the big, smooth, flat black stone….You put the ingredients on it and then mash them with another stone (smaller and preferably white), while at the same time cursing the whole world and your miserable fate!”. As cathartic as this sounds, zhug can just as easily be made in a food processor…or maybe a mortar and pestle if you’re needing to curse your lot in life.
The fact that I have not yet mastered the Israeli way of saying zhug does not diminish it as one of my favorite fun words to say. If you say it once you’ll be saying it all day. Whenever I make it, I tend to repeat the word zhug until my family emphatically tells me it isn’t funny anymore.
Throughout the world the most common spelling is zhug or s’chug depending on what language you are translating from. Other spellings in order of popularity appear to be: zhoug, skhug, zhough, and zehug. In the dozen cookbooks I have with zhug recipes in them, zhug is spelled a half a dozen different ways. Food experts Paula Wolfert and Joan Nathan use the spelling zhug. Revered cookbook writer and cultural anthropologist Claudia Roden, veggie cookbook queen Deborah Madison and Yotam Ottolenghi, who most recently popularized zhug in his 2012 cookbook Jerusalem, all use the spelling zhough. The classic 1990 cookbook Taste of Israel by Ganori and Maiber as well the the 1997 cookbook Everyday Cooking for the Jewish Home by Ethel G. Hofman use the spelling zhoug.
However you spell zhug to win a scrabble game, zhug is also an indispensible sauce to have on hand. Whenever I see lush bunches of cilantro and parsley at the farmer’s market, a big batch of zhug needs to be made…it can be frozen for months and counted on to add a vibrant punch of flavor whenever needed.
½ cup cilantro leaves
½ cup parsley leaves
3 medium jalapeno peppers (about 3 oz.); stems and seeds removed
4 garlic cloves
3/4 tsp salt
½ tsp ground cumin seed
½ tsp crushed caraway seed
¼ tsp ground cardamom seed
¼ tsp fresh ground black pepper
¼ tsp red pepper flakes
¼ tsp sugar
1/4 cup olive oil
2 Tbs fresh lemon juice
In bowl of food processor, combine all ingredients. Process until a rough paste is formed.
Store in refrigerator for one week. Zhug can also be frozen for months.
Use at room temperature
The zhoug is a standout with store bought ground cumin, caraway and cardamom, yet if you want to make the flavors even more pronounced, slightly toast cumin, caraway and cardamom seeds in sauté pan briefly to bring out the flavor then grind in spice or coffee grinder before adding to recipe.
For cardamom seeds smash green cardamom pods to extract the seeds.