What is Ras el Hanout when it’s at home?

“The metallic glint of the cantharide is migled with the grey stalks of ginger and more than two dozen spices are needed to complete the intoxicating aroma in which the nomad warrior has combined all the scents of the countries he has passed through”

Madame Guinaudeau, Les Secrets des Cuisines en Terre Marocaine

What is Ras el Hanout, or rather, where is Ras el Hanout (or Ras al-hanut, or Raz al-hanout) when it’s at home?

Answer: quite likely Morocco… or another Mediterranean-facing, Arabic country in north Africa. Or rather, less frequently now in Morocco, as it was banned there in 1990. Why? Because it was said to include Spanish fly – a startlingly green beetle containing cantharides, a drug which is said to be both an aphrodisiac and to cause miscarriage and abortions. Other versions contained other equally alarming sex-encouraging ingredients such as monk’s pepper, dried belladona berries, or mountain ash berries.

ras el hanout
The luminously green Spanish fly. Image courtesy Franco Christophe from Wikimedia Commons .

What really are the ingredients of Ras el hanout?

Ras el hanout is a complex blend of spices – Steenbergs’ version, in the featured image at the top of this page, includes twenty two but every version is a little different – some may contain more, and some simple versions contain just four. Steenbergs’ version doesn’t contain cinnamon or mustard seeds, others do.

Ras el Hanout means ‘top of the shop’, it was the spice blend kept in a safe and special place, one of the most precious things the merchant had to sell. It’s an elegant and subtle mix, not shouty with chilli. It’s the balance of the blend that’s important. It’s also warming – ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, mace, nutmeg, cloves, allspice and pepper all combine to bestow heat to the traveler in the cold desert night.

The Steenbergs’ Ras el hanout contains the following (mostly in ground powder form):

  • paprika
  • cumin
  • ginger
  • coriander seed
  • cassia
  • turmeric
  • nutmeg
  • orris root
  • fennel
  • allspice
  • green cardamom seeds
  • dill seeds
  • galangal (follow this link for more about galangal)
  • caraway seed
  • black cardamom seeds
  • chilli powder
  • cloves
  • mace
  • cubeb pepper
  • rose petals
  • bay leaf
  • saffron

What can you substitute for Ras el hanout?

Of course, nothing is quite the same but sometimes you’ll have all the ingredients for a recipe you want to try except the Ras el hanout specified. What then?

You can use Garam Masala (another coriander-based spice mix).

Or you can make your own.

How to make your own Ras el Hanout

You can either make a mix of equal parts ground coriander and ginger and paprika, or if you want it a little hotter you can substitute the paprika for cayenne. You can also add dry-fried and crushed cumin seeds, a few grinds of nutmeg, and/or a pinch of saffron. Peppercorns, turmeric, and cardamom seeds are other ingredients to experiment with.

What is the best way to use Ras el Hanout?

Bear in mind that Ras el Hanout supplies a big dose of flavour

“I always have a jar of ras-el-hanout in the kitchen – it’s a really useful seasoning.”

James Whetlor, Goat: Cooking and Eating
  • You can add it to tagines (especially a mutton tagine)
  • It’s good sprinkled onto aubergines, and other roast vegetables….serve with a harissa yoghurt dip
  • Use as a rub for chicken, beef or lamb, especially when cooking kebabs – mix with a little oil first
  • Sprinkle over scrambled eggs, or omelettes
  • Helps buck up boring, tasteless tomatoes
  • in a chicken and almond pie
  • over rice and, especially, over couscous
  • add to a salad niçoise
  • Or sprinkle over humous
  • Or over couscous
  • Add to gravy
  • Incorporate into köfte or meatballs
  • Add to shepherds’ pie for an added bit of Raz Matazz (sorry!)
  • add a little to your ground coffee! Very warming…

Which is the best Ras el Hanout to buy?

  • In my view the best available is from Steenbergs’.
  • However, Seasoned Pioneers also produces a very good one with well over 20 ingredients, and you can clearly see the rose petals
  • Bart blends has fewer ingredients and no cinnamon or cassia – it’s a bit too peppery
  • Waitrose has a strong flavour of cassia and ginger

For more about Steenbergs’ extensive and exceptional spices and herbs, go to this interview with founder, Axel Steenberg. And, no, Saucy Dressings is not paid by any individual or company to recommend them – and that includes Steenbergs – this company just does really supply some of the best herbs and spices available.

Raz el-hanout
Steenbergs’ version is a mix of 22 different spices.

Music to listen to

This spice has a very strong Arabian Nights feel to it, so enjoy the music and dance of Sheherezade.

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