We're talking the "top shelf" of spice blends.
Wandering through the bustling medinas of Morocco, one is easily overwhelmed by the colors, sounds, and abundant fragrances emanating from the shops and stalls. Aromatic towers of freshly ground spices fill the air with a potent blend of cinnamon and rosebud, cardamom and thyme, and endless other undecipherable flavors.
For many travelers, the unforgettable aroma of the spice souks is the scent that will come to represent Morocco as a whole. And if there’s one blend considered to be the most important and emblematic of Moroccan cuisine it’s Ras el Hanout.
While this fragrant North African spice blend may have flown under your radar for years, it is a crucial part of the Moroccan kitchen. The term Ras el Hanout, which means ‘top of the shop’ or ‘head of the shop’ in Arabic, came to represent a unique blend of the very best spices available at any merchant’s shop. This flexibility has resulted in Ras el Hanout becoming perhaps the most complicated and diverse spice blend of them all, in some cases containing up to 60+ spices masterfully combined in one batch.
As with most of our favorite blends, from Dukkah to Herbes de Provence, there is no set recipe for this vibrant mix, though some of the ingredients commonly used include coriander, cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, cumin, and cardamom. Beyond the fundamentals, the variations are endless, allowing spice merchants and home cooks the freedom to create as simple or complicated a Ras el Hanout as their taste buds desire. Some other common additions include allspice, black pepper, caraway, star anise, fennel, paprika, and chili peppers.
Indicative of Morocco’s history itself, many of the spices used in Ras el Hanout did not originate in Morocco, but were instead brought to the country incrementally by the variety of colonists and cultures that have moved through the land—which acts as the gateway from Europe to Africa—over the years.
In Moroccan cooking, Ras el Hanout takes on a similar role to Garam Masala in India, and is a versatile and aromatic mixture that is used to flavor the country’s most iconic savory dishes, tagine and couscous.
In addition to giving dishes a rich depth of flavor, the health benefits of Ras el Hanout can also be plentiful, depending on the spices used. While coriander is a great source of dietary fiber—100g of seeds contain over 40g of fiber—and vitamin C, cinnamon and cardamom will lend vitamin A, niacin, and thiamin to the mixture. The blend can also be a good source of minerals—nutmeg is a source of potassium and magnesium—and essential oils, which are found in black pepper, cardamom, nutmeg, and coriander.
This unique blend is the key to perfecting traditional Moroccan dishes like Moroccan Spiced Lamb Meatballs and Seven Vegetable Couscous and makes a particularly good rub for meats like beef, salmon, turkey, and Grilled Apricot-stuffed Leg of Lamb. However, it can also be used in lighter recipes like Spice-Roasted Eggplant with Garlic Yogurt and Harissa and Moroccan Red Gazpacho.
While pre-made Ras el Hanout mixes can be found at the supermarket, thanks to its complexity and flexibility this mixture is especially fun to make at home. Start with a basic recipe and add in an array of spices that you think will bring out the best flavors in your Moroccan-inspired dishes. The key to a successful Ras el Hanout is ensuring that no one spice stands out or dominates the others, but rather the mixture is a complex and somewhat mysterious one, emblematic of the age-old spice stalls from which it originated.