Serious Heat: What the Heck Is in Ras el Hanout?
"Ask as politely as you want, but Morocco's famous hospitality does not extend to revealing the spices or proportions contained in this legendary spice blend."
Note: On Thursdays, Andrea Lynn, associate editor of Chile Pepper magazine, drops by with some Serious Heat. This week, she joined forces with travel writer Kate Mulcrone to discover the mystery of a Moroccan spice blend.
Forget the baffling, labyrinthine streets of the medinas in Marrakech and Fes—the true mystery of Morocco is found in the pantry. Right next to jars of cinnamon, cumin, and dried ginger you might find ras el hanout, a blend of anywhere from ten to 100 spices that is the carefully guarded secret behind any Moroccan cook's reputation. On a recent trip to Morocco, we fell hard for the intrigue of what's exactly in the spice. Ask as politely as you want, but Morocco's famous hospitality does not extend to revealing the spices or proportions contained in this legendary spice blend.
"Ras el hanout" translates to "top of the shop," meaning it's the best the shop has to offer. And each shop has its own pride and glory of spices to fall under the name. Some are vibrant reds, others are murky browns, but all taste like a combination of intermingling spices that combine the familiar and the unfamiliar. In Morocco, ras el hanout is referred to as the lazy cook's spice, in that it is added to anything and everything for an extra oomph of flavor. Sprinkled in tagines, flavoring the broth for couscous and added into poaching liquid for fruits, you can't but help fall in love with the ever-present blend.
While in Morocco, we made a rookie mistake--buying bags of a ground terra cotta-colored thirty-spice version of the blend from a stall in the market near Jemaa el Fna (the largest square in Africa), and a ground burnt sienna version with forty-two spices. Then, we hit the jackpot of unground ras el hanout, in hopes of sifting through its components in discovery.
Kate was a more dedicated soul on this case, finding star anise, cinnamon bark, long pepper and bright orange mace. Encouraged by these easy victories, an entire bag of ras el hanout was poured into a large bowl to begin more prospecting. There were slightly different varieties of black and white peppercorns as well as allspice, nutmeg, cloves, cumin, cardamom, galangal, dried and flaked ginger, mace, rose petals, dried cilantro, and dried parsley.
There were items that puzzled us, like the caramel-colored seed the size of a popcorn kernel housed in a fragrant pod, the gorgeous bright purple petals, a thin, slightly brittle twig, and a bitter bark that turned white after chewed. (Not to mention the berry that made it into the notebook as "bitter, black—not pepper!") Further research revealed "small red brown berry" to be a grain of paradise, the gingery, peppery fruit of a tree native to West Africa. "Almost pepper" is called cubeb. "Weird green thing" just might have been...Spanish fly?
So come on, smart Serious Eaters—take a look and tell us what you think is in this intriguing spice combo. We know you won't let us down.