A veritable spice rack in itself, ras el hanout is a rich, colorful aromatic that is used to season savory dishes, including meats, veggies, couscous, pasta, rice, and stews called tagines. While many different versions of the spice blend are used throughout Northwest Africa (known as the Maghreb), it is most closely associated with Moroccan cuisine.
Ras el hanout is Arabic for "head of the store," which is kind of like "top-shelf." Sometimes containing upward of 30 ingredients, including ground spices, dried roots, and leaves, each Middle Eastern spice blend is unique to its maker. Moroccans use ras el hanout to add vibrant golden color and warm, fragrant spice to all sorts of dishes, including traditional foods such as rfissa, couscous tfaya, and mrouzia. Read on for how to create this spice blend at home and all of its various uses.
Each spice shop has its own version of ras el hanout, but the standard ingredients include the seven Cs: caraway, cardamom, cinnamon, chilies, cloves, coriander, and cumin. Fennel, ginger, nutmeg, paprika, pepper, and turmeric are also common, which creates a flavor that is earthy and woody as well as sweet and floral. Authentic regional recipes include native plants like galanga root, cubeb berries, whole mace, guinea pepper, ash tree fruit, dried rose petals, and anise seeds. Bon Appetite offers this recipe of easy-to-find ingredients:
Of course, you can always just buy it from places like The Spice House, which blends turmeric, pepper, cardamom, nutmeg, sea salt, ginger, mace, allspice, and saffron in its recipe. According to PepperScale, both garam masala or curry powder Indian spice mixes and a pinch of cayenne pepper powder can be substituted for ras el hanout.
Sometimes spelled "tajine," tagine refers both to the ceramic or clay cone-shaped cooking vessel and the stew that is prepared in it. (Word to the wise—if you're thinking of buying one, get a heat diffuser to go with it so you can use it on the stove.) Tagines start with a base layer of onions, garlic, and oil, then a layer of meat and vegetables, plus spices like ras el hanout, and water to create a flavorful sauce. No tagine? No problem. Liz’s Lamb Tagine and Once Upon a Chef's Moroccan Chicken Tagine both use pans instead.
Use ras el hanout as a spice rub on lamb, chicken, beef, pork, or even fish. Make a paste with a tablespoon of ras el hanout and a few drops of olive oil and rub it all over your meat before throwing on the grill. This Grilled Moroccan Chicken recipe creates a delish marinade by combining a teaspoon of ras el hanout with a few tablespoons of olive oil, a minced garlic clove, and a three-fingered pinch of kosher salt. Better yet, put it in a pita pocket!
Add flavor to any soup that you wouldn't mind tasting cinnamon, cloves, mace, and nutmeg in. Pumpkin and butternut squash go particularly well, like in this Moroccan Pumpkin, Chickpea, and Tomato Soup. Like lentils? Make this vegan lentil soup with potatoes and spinach that promises to be both hearty and healthy.
Blend ras el hanout with softened butter, sour cream, or plain yogurt for a quick and easy dipping sauce that goes great with grilled meats. A Fork and a Pencil suggests stirring "half a cup of Greek yogurt, a teaspoon of ras el hanout, and a squirt of lemon juice" together.
Lamb, honey, and raisins may make strange bedfellows to Westernized palates, but somehow the ras el hanout's pungent, warm flavor marries them all seamlessly in mrouzia, another tagine out of Morocco. In fact, sometimes ras el hanout is called mrouzia spice because its intense flavor is so prevalent in this dish that is traditionally served at the Muslim festival of sacrifice, Eid al-Adha.
Here are some little known facts about couscous: Made from semolina, Moroccan is one of the three main types of couscous, which also includes Israeli and Lebanese. It's tiny grains cook quite quickly. Stir a teaspoon of el ras hanout into a cup of couscous before cooking. Add some roasted veggies and you've got dinner, baby!
For a savory snack, sprinkle some ras el hanout on your popcorn. Instead of spice, it adds a warm flavor that is woody, pungent, bitter, and sweet all at the same time.