The spicy secrets of ras el hanout

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The Moroccan spice mix ras el hanout swirls with myth and mystery. Created by spice merchants as their finest house blend – its name means “king of the shop” – every recipe is a complex, closely guarded secret and everyone will tell you that theirs is the best.

The standard ingredients for ras el hanout are the seven Cs: cumin, coriander, cardamom, caraway, cinnamon, cloves and chillies. Also common: turmeric, paprika, fennel, ginger, nutmeg and pepper. (You can see, it’s already an entire spice rack.) From there, depending on the maker, the list becomes more exotic: rose petals, cassia, liquorice root, lavender, saffron, galangal, orris … you get the drift. Until they were outlawed in the 1990s, two more, uh, “speciality” ingredients could be included: hashish and cantharides, otherwise known as the supposed aphrodisiac, Spanish fly.

North African purists – yes, they exist – consider ras el hanout’s kitchen-sink approach a somewhat lazy route to flavour, which is exactly why I love it. Its intriguing combination of earthy, floral, woody, warm and sweet notes, none of them dominating or overwhelming, makes it incredibly versatile.

Tracking it down isn’t hard. African and Middle Eastern groceries, good delis and specialist spice shops will have it, and it's readily available online.

Here are five easy ways of using it.

  • Make a marinade for chicken pieces with 3 tablespoons of olive oil, a minced clove of garlic, a good pinch of salt and a teaspoon of ras el hanout.

  • Add a few drops of olive oil to a tablespoon of ras el hanout to make a thick paste and rub it over lamb chops before barbecuing or grilling.

  • Sprinkle over vegetables before roasting. It’s particularly good with sweet potato.

  • Mix a teaspoon of ras el hanout into a cup of couscous before cooking.

  • For an instant dip or easy sauce for cooked meat or fish, stir together half a cup of Greek yoghurt, a teaspoon of ras el hanout and a squirt of lemon juice.

The blog-Paul Hayes