A few years back I had the opportunity to spend a some time in Casablanca en-route to Cairo, Egypt. Was Casablanca a beautiful city? No, not in the least. However what Casablanca lacked in esthetics, it made up for it in charm and great food. I had the opportunity to venture into the Quartiers des Habous, a district slightly off the beaten track with great souks (markets) selling anything and everything Moroccan. It was there that I found a great olive and spice shop. I struck up a conversation with the shopkeeper who offered me a stool to sit on and some sweet slightly spiced tea.
Sidebar: While I’m no Frommer’s or Lonely Planet, I can issue this bit of travel advice: Sweet tea is an effective tool used by shopkeepers to get unsuspecting foreigners to buy their goods. Unless you’re planning on dishing out some currency, do not accept their gracious hospitality. If you do, you will end up carrying around an overpriced and unwanted backgammon set, similar to the one I picked up in Jerusalem in 2001 for a mere $90.00. I now play backgammon, not quite by choice however.
Now since I planned on dropping some cash, I made myself comfortable by drinking copious amounts of his sweet tea and asking him endless questions about Moroccan culinary history. Impressed with my French and Arabic he was all too happy to feed my insatiable appetite for information. With a sense of passion he described to me the essence of Moroccan cuisine. In a nutshell he spoke volumes of Ras el Hanout. Ras el Hanout is Morocco’s version of Garam Masala. He explained the blend’s alluring mystery, how no recipe exists, how the amount of spice one adds or doesn’t add is arbitrary, and how each shop will claim to blend the best Ras al Hanout in Casablanca, a claim he himself was unabashed in making. When I asked him what his recipe was he simply laughed and said in French “un secret est un secret”.
Apart from being fun to say, what does Ras al Hanout actually mean? The word “Ras” (رأس) translated from Arabic means “head” or “top”, whilst Hanout ( الحانوت) means shop. Simply put, head or top of the shop means you’re consuming a blend of a shops most premium spices. Ras el Hanout is typically used to season meat, poultry, fish, game, vegetables, rice, couscous, you name it. You can pretty much put Ras el Hanout on anything that can use a serious infusion of flavour.
Recipes for this classic Moroccan spice blend are infinite; however at its core Ras el Hanout usually contains the following spices:
- 2 tsp coriander seeds
- 1 1/2 tsp cumin seeds
- 1/2 tsp cardamom seeds
- 1/2 tsp fennel seeds
- 1/2 tsp black peppercorns
- 1 tsp ground turmeric
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp paprika
- 1/4 tsp salt
Now please consider the above mentioned spices as merely a flavour foundation, the building blocks on which to build your gastronomical masterpiece. Ras el Hanout, should you decide to go nuts and please go nuts, can contain over 30 varieties of spice. Feel free to add whatever spice you’d like, be it Star Anise, Cloves, Allspice, Bay Leaves, Nutmeg, Mace, fenugreek, ext. This blend seriously allows you to go all out with culinary creativity.
All pictures are courtesy of Mel Hadida whatwouldjaishreedo.wordpress.com