Morocco’s legendary spice markets were one of the main reasons I visited. I envisioned piles of spices, some known to me, others, new. My husband booked a room in a riad (traditional house) walking distance from the Spice Square in Marrakech’s medina so that shopping for spices could be one of our first activities. The market, known in Moroccan as Rahba Lakdima and in French as Place des Epices, was smaller than I expected. Like the souk which was comprised of innumerous stalls in the meandering lanes leading up to the spice market, this market was made up of several small stalls.
They were filled with jars upon jars of spices, petals, bark and leaves inside, and beckoned to passersby outside with peaked piles of colorful spices. There was cumin, saffron, harissa and paprika. But what I came for was what can only be found in Morocco– the spice blend called Ras el Hanout, which translates as “head of the shop.”
Ras el hanout is always a proprietary blend, and made of several dozen spices. The spice vendors I bought from told me that there were more than 35 spices in their blends, but listed only the most common. These usually include paprika. cardamom, clove, cinnamon, coriander, nutmeg, peppercorn and turmeric. Despite my affinity for spices, I couldn’t tell you what the other few dozen might be. That said, I do believe that each shop had its own blend– I bought from three different shops, and each tastes slightly different.
Despite the bright red hue characteristic of Ras el Hanout, it’s not spicy, but warm. It’s used to season meats as a rub or in a marinade, and can be used in stews and tagines. Since my return home, I’ve been sprinkling a little on non-Moroccan dishes, in anything I want to add an interesting savory note– where I might normally use cumin or smoked paprika. This means that Ras el Hanout goes well with everything from Indian to Mexican food, and beyond. So far, it has been the grace note on a summer salad of burrata, arugula and peaches.
I also used it in a lentil stew along with additional cumin and coriander, and it gave a warmth and slight smokiness.
And the biggest hit was when I added a fair amount to mayonnaise to go with fried green tomatoes.
While I realize that most of you won’t have a chance to go to Morocco to get Ras el Hanout, you can also find it in Middle Eastern groceries and online (like everything else). Have fun, experiment, and let me know how you use Ras el Hanout!