Abdul dips his fingers into a bin of juniper berries, then whirls to the cassia bark and the cardamom.
Each time he adds another generous pinch of spice to a round brass plate. Soon it looks like an artist’s palette with electric splotches of red, yellow and green among earthier shades of brown and grey.
He’s assembling the ingredients for m’rozia, a nostril-clearing mix of 16 aromatic spices. When finely ground, m’rozia mutates into one of those mysterious, je ne sais quoi ingredients, an alchemical blend that Khadija used to boost the flavor of the savory fish tagine she made at Sidi Kaouki not two days ago.
Perhaps, as Peggy suggests, it’s Essouira’s version of ras el hanout, the famed Moroccan spice blend that translates as “top of the shop.” Every spice merchant has his own private recipe; Abdul’s includes 45 ingredients, some of which can’t be found in America.
Abdul’s spice stall is in the Marrakech mellah. You can smell the comingled aromas long before rows of tall spice cones come into view. The cones are actually paper, coated with glue and dusted with individual ground spices such as paprika and cumin. Collectively they signal the passerby, “Spices are sold here…”
I scan the bottles and bins that line the walls. Some contain rare or uncommon substances: lumps of yellowish musk and amber, crimson pomegranate flowers, chunks of astringent alum and benzoin. A metal tub of wrinkly dry roots labeled “Berber Viagra” is probably ginseng.
Others, though familiar, are so intense that they seem altogether different from the spices I know and love. I poke my nose into a gallon jar of Moroccan saffron and inhale deeply. It is so warm and sultry, faintly tinged with the scent of wood smoke, that, like the 17th century herbalist Nicolas Culpepper, I feel the onset of “a heaviness in the head, a sleepiness…”
Now Abdul is adding big pinches of paprika, and ground turmeric and ginger. But what are those tiny seeds? “Graines de roquette, madame,” he whispers with a darting glance. “Et fruits de frene…”
Peppery arugula seeds and ash berries, the latter considered a warming tonic or aphrodisiac… Then come the exotic peppers: tailed cubebs, floral but fiery long peppercorns and pungent, tongue-numbing grains of paradise.
When he’s done, Abdul sets the brass plate on a scale and balances it with a counter weight, adding a whole nutmeg to bring it to 500 grams. Just before pouring the m’rozia into a plastic bag, he cracks the nutmeg. Its warm, sweet scent fills me with a sense of well-being….
Yes, I’ll take some of that please….
Here’s a list of the 16 spices that go into Abdul’s m’rozia: nutmeg, mace, grains of paradise, long pepper, cubeb, juniper berries, green cardamom, white peppercorns, nigella seed, flat cassia bark, paprika, ground turmeric, ground ginger, ash berries, powdered resin, and arugula seed.