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Thursday, June 19, 2008

Ras el Hanout

Moroccan Spices: Make your own blend
Spice Souk, Meknes, Morocco

Ras el Hanout: A Magical Blend of Moroccan Spices
by Victoria Challancin

Whole spices and cones of ground spices
Marrakech, Morocco

The spices of the East are the stuff of legend. Their history is exotic; their travel as daring as that of the most intrepid explorer; their aromas redolent of the Bible, caravans, and mystery. So much mystery. And nowhere is it more obvious than in the souks of Morocco, where the shopkeepers call out to their prospective customers, assuring them that their spices are the freshest, the best available. Nowhere, in my mind, is the poetry of the East more eloquent than in the spice markets where the tall cones of ground spices beckon, brazenly impervious to any breath of wind or carelessness from casual shoppers. The baskets of both fresh and dried rosebuds, attest to the daily use of flowers to scent not only the home, but the food as well. The containers of whole spices, some unidentifiable to me, certainly assure the more knowledgeable housewife that her personal blend will be made with care from unadulterated sources, fresh and aromatic.

The term ras el hanout refers to a North African spice blend, which often includes up to 40 different spices, with some blends claiming to include over one hundred. While understanding the perfect nuance of this varied spice blend is a difficult enough task, even the actual name ras el hanout causes confusion. A literal translation of the term from the Arabic means “head or top of the shop.” Some say it refers to its Ethiopian roots, where the term ras is a title for a king, a way of slightly glorifying the spice purveyor and his wares. Others suggest that it simply refers to the fact that the merchant makes his blends in the front of the shop in full view of the purchaser. It has also been suggested that the term could refer to the shape of the conical piles of ground spices, perfectly sculpted, perfectly enticing. More likely, according to one of my Moroccan friends, it simply refers to the house blend of the particular shop or stall, suggesting that the offering is the best of the shop, the finest the merchant has to offer.

In concept, ras el hanout, a perfect syntheses of flavor and aroma, is akin to other great spice combinations, such as the famous moles of Mexico, the garam masalas of India, and the various baharat blends of the Middle East. Traditional cooks in each of these cultures guard their secret blends, never sharing private family recipes, only giving out the final product once blended or cooked into a prized dish. In each of these culinary traditions, cooks will go to their markets to buy in bulk the basis for their individual blends, which they make at home. But in a busy world, modern cooks all over the world often rely on pre-made combinations. In Morocco this is certainly true. While many cooks still make in bulk the blends preferred by their families, busy housewives simply buy their spices pre-mixed by a trusted vendor or ground to order.

You can easily buy excellent blends from good spice merchants such as,, or, to name but a few. But the satisfaction of grinding and blending your own fresh personal blend can’t be matched. A few rules of thumb should be kept in mind:

  • Remember that ras el hanout is a blend. No one spice should stand out, rather the overall effect should be complex and elusive—warm, aromatic, undecipherable, with sharp, pungent, and aromatic notes. The “whole” should be much more than the sum of its individual parts, an amalgam of Eastern flavors, a delight to the senses.
  • Amazing results can be achieved by adding subtle amounts of spices. A beautiful blend like ras el hanout should never be an excuse for heavy-handed carelessness, but more of a magical assist in elevating the “mundane” into the realms of the culinary “divine.”

Authentic versions of ras el hanout can include both common and fairly unusual ingredients as dried rosebuds, dried lavender, fennel flowers, European ash berries, Japanese white ginger, orrisroot, mace blades, caraway, fenugreek, galangal, nigella seeds, chufa nuts, belladonna berries, cantharides (the green beetle called “Spanish fly,” which is now banned in Morocco), and a variety of pungent peppers such as monk’s pepper (chaste berries), cubeb pepper, long-pepper, and grains of paradise (malegueta pepper). However, you can make a perfectly respectable blend of Moroccan spices which can be used to liven up and warm any number of recipes. Here is my personal version which I learned while in Morocco, completely authentic yet made from readily available ingredients:

Ras el Hanout
(Recipe by Victoria Challancin)

1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 3-inch piece of cinnamon stick (cassia bark)
1 1/2 teaspoons allspice berries
1⁄2 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
2 whole cloves
1⁄2 teaspoon cardamom seeds

1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon turmeric
1⁄2 to 1 teaspoon cayenne chile
1⁄4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt

Place the coriander seeds, cumin seeds, cinnamon stick, allspice berries, fennel seeds, black peppercoms, cloves, and cardamom seeds in a small skillet. Heat over medium heat, stirring constantly, for one minute or until spices become fragrant. Be careful not to burn. Allow to cool. Place all the ingredients into a food processor or spice mill and process until smooth.

Store in an airtight container in a dark place for up to a month.

Suggested uses: In addition to using in Moroccan dishes calling for ras el hanout, this blend can be used in judicious amounts as a rub for grilled meats or seafood, in yogurt as a dip, mixed with cheese, in a vinaigrette, with eggplant, in a rice pilaf. Although in Morocco it is mainly used in meat tagines or stews, let your imagination guide you and you will easily find an indispensable place for it in your cooking.

This will be my entry for this week's Weekend Herb Blogging originated by the talented and gracious Kalyn of Kalyn's KItchen and hosted this week by Joanna at Joanna's Food.

Flavors of the Sun Morocco Trip:
I plan to take another small group of adventurous travelers to Morocco in October of 2008. Contact me at for more information.
Victoria Challancin
Flavors of the Sun International Cooking School
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico


Joanna said...

This is a really lovely post, full of information and some beautiful photographs - love those rosebuds!

I'm going to come back to it when I've got a bit more time after finishing off the round-up, and study it hard ... I love the idea of making this blend


maybelles mom said...

wow, great post. I have been using a ras el hanout I got from Boudin's Larder, but I will read this again and try to make my own.

NKP said...

Wow, I have never seen those spice cones before. Thank you for the great lesson on Morrocan spices. The first list was full of spices that I had never heard of but I have everything in your home recipe. I will try this soon. Thank you.

Kalyn Denny said...

Great post! I've been to Morocco, but only for a day and I love learning more about this.

Jude said...

I had no idea ras el hanout could have so many ingredients. The photography and info here is great. Thanks for the great read.