In the world of spice blends, Morocco’s Ras el Hanout can be compared with Garam Masala or a curry powder in the sense that it’s a versatile mix of warm and fragrant spices. However, the comparison stops there. Ras el hanout, garam masala and curry mixes all have different flavor profiles. While the Indian mixes are more on the savory side of cooking, ras el hanout tends to be floral and sweet.
Ras el hanout is the secret ingredient in certain Moroccan dishes that need an aromatic, sweet topping. It’s that pinch in a traditionally brewed coffee or honeyed dessert that makes you wonder what’s so special about it. Or it may be what made that kefta sandwich you had in Marrakesh so pleasantly unforgettable. And how about rfissa with its layers of shredded msemen topped with chicken in a flavorsome broth?
Although ras el hanout is associated with North Africa, it’s used more heavily in Morocco than in Algeria and Tunisia. Most of its actual components come from far away; some are thought to be aphrodisiacs and others are almost impossible to find among the “common” spices we may be familiar with. (No wonder it’s an invitation for exoticism and travel!) Each element of this mix has to be added with a steady hand and a good knowledge of the spices and aromas in order to create the perfect balance. One misused spice can ruin the whole batch; it’s a savvy blend!
Ras el Hanout in Fez
Throughout Morocco, each spice seller (‘attar) has his own secretly guarded recipe; this means that no two versions of ras el hanout are exactly the same and regional differences can be significant. If a family doesn’t buy their favorite mix from a trusted vendor, then it’s likely that they make their own ras el hanout, using a recipe which has been passed down in the family from one generation to another or from one neighbor to another.
I might be biased but I prefer the Fassi (Fez) version of ras el hanout. I find it to be well-balanced and I like its floral flair with peppery and earthy tones. In her book Les Saveurs et Les Gestes, writer Fatema Hal refers to this Fassi blend as an “imperial blend” and she also mentions the Benchekroun family, who has been in the spice business for generations. They were once associated with the town’s best ras el hanout mix for Mrouzia.
My own family and I are long-time customers of this family. During one of my trips to Fez, I enjoyed chatting with Mr. Benchekroun in his shop in El Ettarine, the spice section of the old medina. My mother and I monopolized the gentleman’s time for 30 minutes while he explained the history of each spice he had in the shop.
In addition to generously sharing his knowledge and time, Mr. Benchekroun helped me wrap and label each of the whole spices used in ras el hanout so I could grind my own blend at a later date. We also bought ground ras el hanout, which he wrapped in individual portions so I could give them as gifts once I returned to Qatar, where I lived at the time.
What Are the Spices in Ras el Hanout?
The story goes that you need at least 25 to 40 spices and berries to make ras el hanout. While a spice vendor may share what’s in his version, he will be reluctant to share how much; each vendor has his own recipe and he won’t be willing to give it away! I’ll be forever grateful that Mr. Benchekroun shared his list of ingredients with me.
Most of the what you need for the Fassi version is listed below:
- Dried galangal, Khdenjel, It is said that it’s good during periods (women’ menstruation). Khdenjel is also used in the Moroccan snails soup.
- Sedge, Cypéracée, E’ttara
- Boules de graines cultivées, agglomérées, Hebbet benchabek
- Nutmeg, Gouza el boultia or Gouzet ettib
- Turmeric, kharqoum.
- Cinnamon sticks, Qarfa.
- Long pepper, Piper longum, Dar l’felfel.
- Rosebuds, Rious el ward el beldi is the rose of Damascus cultivated in the valleys of Dades, Todra..
- Mace, Bsibissa, the orangy crust that covers the nutmeg.
- Dried ginger root, Skinjbir.
- Iris, Oud L’aamber
- Holarrhena, Fruit du frêne, L’ssan Ettir (an aphrodisiac, it seems).
- Green Cardamom, Qâquoulla or L’hil
- Clove, Oud nouar, Qrenfel.
- White pepper, lbzar Labiad
- Berries of belladonna, dried berries, Zbibet el laïdour.
- Malaguetta pepper, Maniguette, Gouza sahraouia
- Allspice, Nouiouira
- Cubeb, Cubèbe, fragrant black pepper, Cubaba
- Caper berries, kebbar
- Monks’ pepper, poivre des moines, Kherouaâ
- Black peppercorns, lbzar lak’hal
- Ethopian Cardamom, Hil habachi
- Lavender flower, Khzama
- Star anise or Chinese star anise, Dar el sini or Badiana
Now the oddest element would be the Spanish fly, cantharides or Debbante elhand, which is highly toxic. It is said to be an aphrodisiac but Mr. Benchekroun said they no longer use it nowadays. Thank God. I have no idea why they used it in the first place.
As you might notice, there is no mention of cumin or fenugreek which you may find in another region of Morocco as part of the Ras el Hanout blend. I personally prefer mine without.
Ras el Hanout literally means "head of the shop" in reference to the best what our 'attar (spice seller) has to offer. This blend of fragrant and warm spices is rarely used in Fassi cooking (from Fez), but more often in other regions of Morocco. As such, the type of spices and the quantity differs from one region to another.
Since most cooks outside of Morocco won't have access to all of the spices and aromatics typically used, my recipe calls for a smaller list of elements more likely to be found in US and UK supermarkets and ethnic shops. Here is a suggestion of a homemade Ras el Hanout.
- 3 pods cardamom
- 1/2 oz. dried turmeric root
- 1/2 oz. ground ginger
- 1/2 tsp saffron threads
- 1/2 oz. rose petals from dried rose buds, Damascus or Dades roses
- 1/4 oz. dried galangal
- 1/2 long pepper, omit if it's difficult to find
- 1/4 oz. white peppercorn
- 1/4 oz. black peppercorn
- 1/2 oz. guinea peppercorn, omit if it's difficult to find
- 1/2 oz. mace
- 1/2 oz. lavender
Preheat the oven to 338° F (170° C). Toast the spices listed under "Whole spices" for 8 minutes. Set aside to cool.
In a coffee or spice grinder, blend the cooled spices to a gritty texture.
Add the rest of the ingredients and blend the whole mix to a fine powder. Sieve and only keep the fine powder.
Keep the Ras el Hanout in a sealed jar away from the light for 3 to 6 months.
- It's practically impossible to find a spice seller who's willing to share his recipe for Ras el hanout, so the recipe posted here is a suggestion.
- It's essential to use the freshest spices possible that have not been lingering in your kitchen for months. When finished mixing the spice blend, store it in an airtight glass jar and place it in a dark place.