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Raw ingredients for a ras el hanout mix

Book #3 in the ‘Moss Reid’ crime series mentions a fair few spices you’d be hard pushed to find in Irish shops: spice blends from around the Mediterranean and the Maghreb region of western North Africa, including the fabulous ras el hanout.

Ras el hanout is incredibly versatile, and not just for tagines. It adds a golden colour and aromatic flavour to many kinds of stews, soups, keftas and kebabs, in marinades or as a spice rub on grilled prawns (see below) or lamb chops, or as a half teaspoon stirred into a cup of rice or couscous while cooking.

And the taste? Slightly curry-like, with a spicy kick and a floral fragrance.

Maghreb cuisine

Ras el hanout is one of those classic examples of how a wide variety of spices can come together to create something that’s far more than the sum of their parts, with plenty of subtle nuances inside an overall robust flavour. A bit like all the clues in a decent crime mystery, perhaps?

Its name in Arabic (time to look very erudite: it’s راس الحانوت) literally means “top of the shop” or “head of the shop” – a mixture of the best spices a seller has to offer. Each seller will have his or her own secret combination, containing dozens of spices, and it’s a point of honour among the souks (spice merchants)  to have the most sought after version in the market.

So bear in mind that there isn’t one standard recipe for ras el hanout – every mix is different. Think of it as the Moroccan equivalent of garam masala from India, or five spice powder from China, or Everyday Value Mild Curry Powder from Tesco.

Making your own

The ingredients that are finely ground together to create a typical ras-el-hanout mix would probably include:

  • Cardamom
  • Cinnamon
  • Cloves
  • Coriander
  • Cumin
  • Ground chili peppers
  • Nutmeg
  • Peppercorns
  • Saffron
  • Turmeric

Normally for curries and so on the best advice would be to make make your own fresh batch of spices from scratch. But as you can see, ras el hanout is a  major exception, what with all those ingredients, and that’s just hte start of it.

Some mixes – by street sellers, manufacturers or ordinary families – will include dozens of other even more exotic (to me anyway) ingredients: ash berries, chufa, galangal, ground maniguette, rose petals, cantharis, Grains of Paradise (also sometimes called alligator pepper!), orris root, dried rosebuds and even Spanish fly and… hashish!

Besides, ras el hanout is so cheap in the markets of the south of France – or the Halal butchers where I first came across little tubs of it. A euro’s worth is more than enough to fill a 20-gram spice jar, enough to keep you going for at least five or six dishes. And it’s the kind of thing that you can easily get past airport customs. Far easier than, say, baking powder or potato starch.

And if you can’t get your hands on some ras-el-hanout, why not try this recipe from the Eats Like A Girl blog for Ras el hanout prawn kebabs with couscous and tomato chilli sauce. In her instructions for the ras-el-hanout marinade she says the rose petals are optional.

Photo credit: Joanna Winnik – I love this image of seeds, petals, pods and berries.

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