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Ras El Hanout: The Secret Ingredient in Moroccan Cooking; Lifting Chicken and Vegetables from the Ordinary to the Sublime

Spices for ras el hanout from an herboriste in Marrakesh: top from left to right, cassia stick, unknown, mace, unknown nut, long pepper, nutmegs; bottom, left to right, green cardamom, galangal, allspice, unknown root, allspice.

Spices for ras el hanout from an herboriste in Marrakesh: top from left to right, cassia stick, unknown, mace, unknown nut, long pepper, nutmegs; bottom, left to right, green cardamom, galangal, allspice, unknown root, allspice.

I’m sitting outside in the clear cold light of an October morning, peering through a magnifying glass at a dusty bag of whole spices.

The spices are for ras el hanout, an old ingredient in the Moroccan cook’s battery of seasonings. Some of the items are familiar, but others—a fibrous gnarled root and a shiny nut that rattles when I shake it–are strange to me. When I inhale their mingled aroma, it is so electric that tears come to my eyes.

What is ras el hanout? Literally, the phrase translates as “top” or “head of the shop,” and, as the story goes, it is a blend of as many as 100 exotic spices. It is not Moroccan curry—as Paula Wolfert observes in Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco, it “lacks the abundance of fenugreek, coriander seeds, mustard seeds, poppy seeds and cumin of commercial curry.” Nor is it an all-purpose solution for “bad cooks” who don’t how to season their food–as a Berber pharmacist in Fez joked after I bought his secret blend of 40 spices, including, he winked slyly, hashish and the notorious Spanish fly.

I confess that I was taken in by the wizened pharmacist’s cabinet of wonders. There were lumps of fragrant musk and ambergris, for scenting the linen closet, he said, bottles of damask rose water for sprinkling in cool tiled corridors, dark kohl for lining the eyes and henna for the hands. But when I opened the little bag of spices a few weeks later, it was dull, a pale echo of the 40 ingredients from which it was presumably made.

At its best, ras el hanout is a mixture that represents the peak of the spice blender’s art—hence its name. (In Ethiopia “ras” is a title for “king.”) Usually it is made with fewer than 100 or even 40 spices—and rarely with hashish or aphrodisiacs (Spanish fly is now illegal in Morocco)—but they are expertly combined to produce a nuanced blend in which no single spice predominates. In The Spice and Herb Bible, Ian Hemphill writes that a well made blend acquires a personality all its own. “A good ras el hanout is arguably the finest example of how well a collection of diverse spices can come together to form a complete ingredient that is immeasurably greater than any of the parts taken individually.”

A case in point: Christine and Redouane Khaldi, who own a shop called Marrakesh in Chapel Hill, shared with me the mysterious bag of whole spices. It came from an herboriste in Marrakesh (the city) and it is a pinch of that seasoning that makes the Khaldiis’ chicken and green olive tagine so sublime. Some of the easy-to-identify ingredients include cassia (otherwise known as cinnamon in America, but actually a cousin of the true spice grown in Sri Lanka), nutmeg and its lacy orange covering, mace, green cardamom pods, and allspice berries. There is also long pepper which resembles a tiny immature pinecone and has a tingling, sometimes numbing effect on the tongue. But that doesn’t account for the fiery rush that occurs when I inhale the scent of the bag.

That comes from a pale dried root which appears to be galangal, a ferociously pungent member of the ginger family. But there are other ingredients that I cannot decipher, among them a dark shiny nut containing a seed, and a brown fibrous root with a flavor both resinous and fruity. When I nibble it, my tongue goes mildly numb.

When these very distinct ingredients are pulverized to a fine powder and mixed, they create an aromatic blend that not only lends a divine perfume to the Khaldis’ tagine, but also seems to boost the flavor of the other spices, especially the cinnamon, ginger and saffron. They use it in meatball and other tagines as well, but never with fish where it would be overpowering.

An easy way to dip your spoon into the world of ras el hanout is to buy a ready made blend. At www.herbies.com.au, you can find a 21-spice mixture created by Ian Hemphill, a Sydney spice merchant and author of The Spice and Herb Bible; www.chefshop.com has Mustapha’s authentic Moroccan Ras El Hanout, also made of 21 spices including rose petals, grains of paradise and piment fort, a hot red chili pepper; www.kalustyans.com offers ras el hanout for couscous.

But if you would like to try making your own, you might start with a simple one from Ana Sortun, chef at Oleana in Cambridge. The next two, from Kitty Morse and Paula Wolfert, are more complex, but no less rewarding.

Oleana’s Ras el Hanout

(from Ana Sortun, Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean)

At her Cambridge restaurant, chef Ana Sortun uses a simple seven-spice blend as a “condiment” for chickpeas, fried squid, fish, and vegetables. “However,” she writes in her cookbook, “I think it really shines with chicken, which takes on the reddish hue of the paprika, and the slight sweetness of the ginger, saffron and cumin.” Toasting the cumin seed takes away the raw edge of the spice, giving it a warm, earthy taste.

Makes about 1 cup

Ingredients:

1/4 cup cumin seeds
3/4 teaspoon saffron
1-1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon turmeric
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup paprika

Method:

1. In a small skillet over medium low heat, toast the cumin seeds for 2 minutes, until fragrant. Place the seeds in a spice grinder and cool completely. Add the saffron to the spice grinder and grind with the cumin seed.

2. Remove the saffron and cumin mixture to a small mixing bowl and combine with the remaining spices.

Kitty Morse’s Ras el Hanout

(from Kitty Morse, Cooking at the Kasbah: Recipes from My Moroccan Kitchen)

Kitty Morse, who was born in Casablanca, has written nine cookbooks iincluding Cooking at the Kasbah, which was inspired by her family’s recipes. This version of ras el hanout is a blend of 9 spices plus salt. Morse uses the robust blend in a recipe for Kefta Mahchiya: stuffed meatballs with dried fruit in sweet onion sauce. The mixture has the slightest whiff of turmeric—or is it nutmeg? Either way, it is a favorite in our house—the secret ingredient in to-die-for fried chicken.

You will need a good spice grinder if you use whole spices. See
“Tools of the Trade: We Test a Few Under $30 Spice Grinders; Which Ones Work for Spices?” for our recommendations.

Makes about 1/4 cup

Ingredients:

1 teaspoon allspice berries or 1-1/4 teaspoons ground allspice
1 whole nutmeg or 2 teaspoons ground nutmeg
20 threads Spanish saffron
2 teaspoons black peppercorns or 1-1/2 teaspoons ground black pepper
1-1/2 teaspoons blade mace or ground mace
1 three-inch cinnamon stick or 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons cardamom seeds or 1-1/2 teaspoons ground cardamom
2 two-inch pieces dried ginger or 2 teaspoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons salt
1 two-inch piece dried turmeric or 1 teaspoon ground

Method:

1. If using whole spices, put all the ingredients in a nonstick pan over medium-high heat and toast, stirring constantly, until the mixture emits a pleasant aroma, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool. (This first step is not necessary if using commercially ground spices.)
2. Using a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder, reduce the ingredients to a fine powder. Sift to remove fibrous elements. Place in a tightly sealed container and store in a cool, dark place or in the freezer.

Paula Wolfert’s Ras El Hanout

(from Paula Wolfert in Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco)

Paula Wolfert and a Moroccan girl in New York created this American adaptation. Although it “lacks some of the rare Moroccan items like cubeb peppers and the aphrodisiacs,” there are still plenty of hard-to-find ingredients, but the blend is so wildly fragrant that it is well worth seeking them out. (Besides, assembling them is half the fun!)

If you make this recipe, you will definitely need a good spice grinder. To clean the machine and remove any lingering aromas, Wolfert suggests grinding cane sugar in it after you’re finished.

You can order orrisroot, galingale (or galangal), dried turmeric root, dried gingerroot and black cardamom pods from www.kalustyans.com.

Ingredients:

4 whole nutmegs
10 rosebuds
12 cinnamon sticks
12 blades mace
1 teaspoon aniseed
8 pieces turmeric [the dried root]
2 small pieces orrisroot
2 dried cayenne peppers
1/2 teaspoon lavender
1 tablespoon white peppercorns
2 pieces galingale [or galangal]
2 tablespoons whole gingerroot [dried]
6 cloves
24 allspice berries
20 white or green cardamom pods
4 wild (black) cardamom pods

Method:

Grind the ingredients in a blender [or spice grinder] until you obtain a fine mix, then sieve.

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