I’ve often dreamt of walking through the colorful and bustling markets of Fez or Cairo. Exploring tightly packed covered stalls, enveloped by irresistibly enticing sounds, sights, smells, tastes. The beautiful music, the banter between sellers and buyers, the sizzling skewers on tiny portable grills, the vibrant cloths draped overhead swaying in the warm perfumed breeze, the animals and children weaving through the crowds, the baskets of spices and herbs in every hue imaginable.
Though a dream it most likely shall remain, I was once blessed with gifts from the Old Town souk (market) in Dubai. Special edible treats to add to my global pantry, still enjoyed with great fondness, as we very much like to get away from the ordinary in our kitchen. Most unforgettable, a small bag, clearly hand-packed with care, layer upon layer upon layer of kaleidoscope powders. As deliciously aromatic as it was beautiful.
Ras el Hanout. A fragrant and spicy blend of up to 30 or more dried spices, roots, peppers and leaves, some traditional versions up the ante with specialty ingredients like saffron and rose petals. This lends to a price tag of about 150 dirhams per kilogram, or roughly $20 per pound — fortunately, its well-balanced heat and complexity ensure that a little bit goes a long way in cooking!
Traditionally used throughout Morocco and northern Africa for barbecued lamb and meat or vegetable tagines, we like to incorporate the enticing flavors and aromas of Ras el Hanout into rubs and marinades for poultry and fish, as well as grain dishes, curries, stews and mixed into mince for brochettes served with flatbread and cucumber yogurt sauce to tame the fire.
Purchase a jar at Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and some specialty food markets, or online from reputable purveyors like The Spice House … or go on a culinary adventure in your own kitchen. Not as long a list as some recipes, mine combines a still-impressive 17 aromatics.
What’s in It for Me?
Though quantities used in the kitchen are typically small, spices are rich in vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals, and pack a powerful antioxidant punch. In addition to beneficial nutrients, spices (and herbs) impart color, aroma and intense flavor to meals, and allow cooks to enhance taste with less fat and salt.
Tiny aniseeds (or anise seeds) are the seeds of the anise (fennel) plant, offering a small amount of fiber and are a surprising source of iron, providing roughly 10 percent of your recommended daily intake in only 1 Tbsp. In addition to a warm black licorice-like fragrance and flavor, aniseeeds are regarded in many cultures as a galactogogue (thanks to phytoestrogens that stimulate lactation), an aphrodisiac and a medicinal cure-all.
Of no relation to fennel, fenugreek is an annual herb (trigonella foenum graecum) with edible leaves and seeds — the latter of which impart a nutty flavor and have a faint maple-y aroma. The golden, blocky little fenugreek seeds provide more than 10 percent of your daily fiber needs per 1 Tbsp, plus about 1/5 that of your iron. Aniseeds are used by nursing mothers around the world as a galactogogue (typically in the form of a warm brewed tea), and are considered curative for a variety of issues ranging from menopause and depression to digestive and respiratory distress.
Made by finely milling a blend of dried (and often smoked) mild and spicy peppers, paprika adds a bright red color and slight sweetness (or smokiness) to dishes, and is a great flavoring substitute for salt. Paprika is a good source of vitamins B6 and E, and an excellent source of antioxidant vitamin A, providing nearly 75 percent of your DV per 1 Tbsp.
Chile powder (not to be confused with the blend of spices and occasionally preservatives called ‘chili powder’) — in the case of this recipe, ancho chile powder — provides a deeply rich, almost fruity-floral flavor without too much additional heat. This powder of dried and ground ancho chiles is a good source of fiber, iron, manganese and potassium, and is rich in some of the B vitamins plus vitamin A.
In addition to the misleading name, many believe that allspice is a blend rather than a unique spice because of the pungent, peppery taste and aroma reminiscent of a combination of cinnamon, ginger, clove and nutmeg. Technically the dried unripe berry of an evergreen tree native to the tropics, researchers found that allspice (also called Jamaica pepper) contains phytochemicals with antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-tumor properties.
Meaning “head of the shop” in Arabic, Ras el Hanout is thought of as a decadent and kingly ingredient — every time we use it, I can see, taste and smell why. This prized blend is extremely versatile, and when hand-mixed at home, can be made as spicy or tame and as pungent or mild as you wish.
Take a trip (or send a loved one vicariously) to the exotic souks of northern Africa, without leaving the comforts of home!
Ras el Hanout
Makes 1/2 cup
- 2 dried bay leaves
- 2 tsp whole black peppercorns (or 3 tsp ground black pepper)
- 1 Tbsp ground ginger
- 1 Tbsp ground coriander
- 2 tsp ground chile powder (not chilli powder; I used ancho chile for a hint of smokiness)
- 2 tsp ground paprika, sweet, hot, or smoked (I used Hungarian sweet)
- 2 tsp ground cumin
- 2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 2 tsp ground allspice
- 2 tsp ground turmeric
- 11⁄2 tsp ground or freshly grated nutmeg
- 11⁄2 tsp ground cardamom
- 3⁄4 tsp ground fennel seed
- 3⁄4 tsp ground aniseed (also called anise seed)
- 1⁄2 tsp ground fenugreek
- 1⁄2 tsp ground cloves
- 1⁄4 to 1⁄2 tsp ground cayenne pepper, depending on your heat preference
- In a spice mill or mortar and pestle, grind together the bay leaves and black peppercorns until fine and powdery. Transfer to a bowl (strained through a fine mesh sieve, if you like), and add the remaining ingredients; stir until thoroughly mixed.
- Funnel the Ras el Hanout into a tightly sealing jar or container. Store in an airtight container in a cool cupboard or pantry up to 2 months for maximum freshness.
- There is no one standard recipe for Ras el Hanout, so you can feel free to slightly adjust amounts to your liking, make comparable substitutions, or omit ingredients you do not have on hand.
- Want more heat? Add an extra 1 tsp black peppercorns or more a bit more cayenne.
and Not as much a fan of warming spices as you are the black licorice-like flavors? Swap amounts of fennel and aniseed with those of ginger and cinnamon, e.g., use 3⁄4 tsp each of cinnamon and ginger and 1 Tbsp ground fennel and 2 tsp ground aniseed.
- Add some of the other classic elements not featured in this blend, like 1 tsp culinary lavender (ground), 1 Tbsp culinary dried rose petals (ground), 11⁄2 tsp ground mace, or 11⁄2 tsp ground orris root.
Serving Size: 1 tsp Calories: 10 Fat: 0 Saturated fat: 0 Unsaturated fat: 0 Trans fat: 0 Carbohydrates: 1 Sugar: 0 Sodium: 0 Fiber: 1 Protein: 0 Cholesterol: 0