Zhug (variantly spelled as zhoug, zhoog, skhug and schug), is a hot chilli sauce or chilli paste from Yemen.
To me, Zhug is the Middle Eastern pesto. After all, the word zhoug means “ground”, much like pesto comes from the word pestare, meaning “to pound, crush or grind”.
Although more commonly known as Yemeni or Yemenite Green Chilli Sauce, you’ll also find red and brown Zhoug. The former is when the Zhoug is made with red chillies and the latter, when tomatoes are added to the green concoction. But today, we shall be making the green one!
Is Zhug Spicy?
It is a hot sauce, you can’t get away from that! However, you can adjust the level of heat by using mild chillies.
On top of that – something that I teach all my students – capsicums (bell peppers) make the perfect substitute for chilli peppers if you can’t take any spicy food. You get all the fruity flavour without the heat.
Zhug is an unbelievably fresh green chilli paste. This is because, apart from the light toasting of the cumin seeds, everything else is raw.
How to use Zhug?
In so many, many different ways!
- I absolutely love it as a table condiment, goes with so many Middle Eastern and Indian/Pakistani dishes
- as a dip for flatbreads and baguettes, much like you’d dip bread in olive oil in Italy
- as a sandwich or burger topping (see The Ultimate Burger)
- barbecue sauce, get creative and lose the standard ones like hickory and brown sauce
- amazing mixed with mayonnaise (don’t all chilli sauces rock with mayo?)
- fantastic with falafels, meatballs and kebabs
- makes a delicious marinade
Where is Zhug eaten?
Zhoug might have originated in Yemen, but today, you’ll find it all over the Middle East, and, especially so in Israel. Immigrating Yemeni Jews are said to have taken their Zhoug recipes with them to the newly created Motherland in the 1950s.
In my visits to Israel, I was lucky enough to have been invited to Shabbat to the homes of some of the locals, despite not being of the faith. I learnt so much from these meals and the time spent, in the habits of the people, the mealtimes and the food.
Every home I visited had a jar of the green Zhug or Skhug Yarok on the dinner table, eaten as a condiment, with a few also having the red one, Skhug Adom.
The Green Hot Sauce
Zhug is also to be found in the restaurants and food cafes in Israel, and it is the obligatory sauce at all falafel and shawarma joints! In fact, the green/red chilli sauce that’s served with our kebab filled pita bread here in the UK, is a very very close, watered down cousin of it. Fancy that!
I worked in North London in a very Jewish part of town in the mid 90s, and lunch was always from one of two or three falafel and sandwich cafes. Zhoug was always the sauce of choice at these places.
I most certainly had to have it in my Sabih (or Sabich), a delightful pita sandwich with boiled eggs and eggplants, sometimes I’d feel greedy and ask for falafels in there too, to many raised eyebrows! But they got used to my quirky requests very quickly!
So what’s with the green colour?
In the most basic of Zhug recipes, traditionally, there is only 1 herb – coriander, but these days, it’s very common to use both coriander and parsley, which gives an amazing sauce with a deeper flavour. These 2 herbs work so well together, I often use them both when cooking Middle Eastern recipes.
Besides the coriander (cilantro), we also have green chillies to further add to the green.
As mentioned above, the recipe I’m giving you is the stripped down, basic version, delicious as is and fantastic used as described above. My suggestion is to make this, then either get fancy at your next try, or do what I do in my cooking classes.
My students make this green zhoug, then we divide the recipe into 3. One stays as it is, the second gets chopped parsley added to it and the third gets some chopped fresh tomatoes. Seems like the perfect solution, no?
How to make the Perfect Zhoug
Fresh chillies, fresh coriander leaves (cilantro) and fresh garlic.
By that same extension, if you can, dry roast and grind the small amount of cumin seeds that we need for this recipe. I’ve taken that into account in our total time. I forgive you for going the easy route and using shop bought ground cumin – just make sure it’s not been sitting on your spice rack for over a year!
How spicy to make it
That’s a matter of choice. I use 5-8 jalapeños and 2-3 bird’s eye chillies. As always, I love heat and flavour, not just debilitating heat! I shall leave this up to you. Don’t exceed 10 chillies in total, as you’ll then upset the flavour balance.
Use any green chillies you like, and can get your hands on. Likewise, when you’re making the red version, the same thing applies.
Use a Chopper and make life easier
Make life easy and use the chopper to blitz everything! Your sauce is not going to suffer for it.
Variations of Zhoug
- Use red chillies instead of green. The actual red zhug is a somewhat different chilli paste/sauce.
- Use equal amounts of coriander and parsley, so a small handful of each for this recipe.
- 1 medium tomato, quartered and added to the chopper right at the end, so it won’t be puréed, but chopped.
- You can also turn this into a lighter sauce by adding 2-3 tablespoons of water, more lemon juice or more olive oil.
Always bear in mind the original mix and any variations should never alter the basic taste, just complement it. I find too many people get carried away with extras, resulting in a completely different sauce.
Zhug on YouTube
- Turn the oven on to a cool 130˚C/250˚F/Gas Mark ½.
- Wash the jars and lids in hot soapy water.
- Place the jars and lids upside down in the oven and leave them to dry, with the door closed for 15 minutes.
- Leave the jars and lids in there, bring them out only when you are ready to fill. Be careful, as they’ll be hot.
More hotties on The Chilli Page:
Zhug, Yemeni Green Hot Sauce
- 1 large handful fresh coriander leaves
- 3 medium sized garlic cloves
- 8 green jalapeños
- 2 bird's eye chillies
- ½ tsp cumin seeds or ground cumin
- ¼ tsp of salt
- pinch sugar
- 1 Tbsp lemon juice
- 3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 2 Tbsp water
- Red Chillies
- Lemon Juice
- Heat a small frying pan on medium heat and dry fry the cumin for 2-3 minutes until aromatic.
- Place in a spice mill or coffee mill and ground to a powder.
- Now let’s make the sauce. Place the garlic, salt and chillies in a chopper and chop until coarse.
- Chop the coriander leaves next. If your chopper isn’t big enough, do this in 2 batches, then mix everything up in a bowl.
- Mix in the cumin.
- Add the olive oil, lemon juice and water and mix (either still in the chopper or with a spoon in a bowl).
- Place in a container, top with more olive oil and it should keep in the fridge for a couple of weeks.