If you read the About Me page on this blog you would already know that I’m quite taken with Morocco. Luckily for me Italy is optimistically a stone throw away giving me a chance to joyfully boast about the refreshing Moroccan culture that sweeps over part of this city. Immigrants from the land of spices have brought the splendour of Marrakech and Casablanca to the cobbled streets of Genova’s Old Town granting Italians a sensational way to stretch their taste buds. In those first days when the life I left behind drifted further away from me and homesickness set in, regretting that I didn’t pack my sisters into a suitcase seemed like a perfectly reasonable deliberation. Had it not been for the precious spices that did fit into my luggage, I’m convinced that my yearning for home would have been as faithful as a friend, certainly formidable as a foe pushing me on the earliest flight out of Italy back to South Africa. The smell of home, borne from the familiar fragrance of spices wafting through an unfamiliar kitchen did more than just ease my longing, it strengthened my spirit. That’s the wonder of spices, the virtuous way it restores your faith and makes you feel whole again, transcendent in a bowl of good curry.
This is true not only for me, as I’m sure many outsiders would understand. I once met a woman from Sri Lanka working on a yacht in the Port of Genova and while she was the envy of the family she left behind sailing the Mediterranean Sea from Genova to Monte Carlo to St. Tropez, what she truly desired was to see her home again. The first time I invited her to have lunch with me, feeling ecstatic to have met someone who loved and appreciated curry the way I did, I used only the best spice blends I had, shuddering at the realisation that I didn’t have much. The emotion in her words when I asked her to open the pot to look at my piping hot curry, will forever be etched in my memory. “It smells like home,” she confessed. It’s difficult to put into words how much a moment like that is worth when a person is far from home. Two strangers from two different world’s, kindred together, comforted, strengthened, revived, by two priceless treasures – new found friendship and a plate of curry the way Mother used to make it.
Of course just like most things the spices didn’t replenish itself, leaving me in dire desperation upon realising that the stash I brought from home was way below the legal limit of what is considered justifiable for my spice intake per annum. And then one day as if the Universe was in some sort of divine conspiracy to end the crisis looming over my head, I took a
wrong turn by sheer distraction and found myself in the heart of Little Morocco. It’s what I like to call it because it is for me, what Little Italy is for bleeding heart Italians, subsisting in New York. What I found there was everything I had been dreaming about, I thought Indians were in love with spices, and then I met Moroccans. Needless to say all my spice troubles were over and a beautiful introduction to blends I’ve never tried before all began in one sublime afternoon. Living up to its reputation the Master spice blend Ras El Hanout is what spice dreams are made of. I heard about this speciality spice, about 10 years ago whilst watching an episode of Nigella, who by the looks of it kept an enviable stash in her pantry. From the provocative way she described it (like only Nigella can) I knew I had to get my hands on a packet, but searched as I did, I always came up empty-handed or with something that resembled Garam Masala. Four years ago I asked a friend from Morocco who was making her way back there to visit family, if she by any chance knew about the spice that eluded me for almost six years and of course she knew it! I wasn’t going to give up, she was the closest I’d come to finding it so I begged her to bring me back a packet and she said yes but not so surprisingly she forgot, taking me up to a DECADE before I finally got my hands on the mystical and mysterious Master of all blends.
A traditional North African spice blend, Ras el Hanout gets its name from an Arabic phrase meaning “head of the shop”– which probably refers to the very best a spice merchant can offer. It is highly notable for its assortment of seasonings, which can go up to sixty different seeds, spices, roots and barks leaving me amazed how the whole harmoniously becomes so much more than the sum of its parts. Ras el Hanout is not a spicy blend, but it gives pungent, warm flavour and golden colour. The cinnamon, cloves, star anise and nutmeg also add sweet accents with a dash of dry lavender and rose petals for a floral fragrance. This unique blend with deep, complex flavours and exotic aromas can be used in a myriad of ways. Use it as a marinade to flavour tagines and stews or as a dry rub to flavour meat and vegetables or toss it over popcorn. The harmonious notes also flavours rice, couscous, game and lamb beautifully. Add 1 tsp spice to every 1 cup of rice or couscous or use it flavour cream cheese for an exotic dip.
To add to its mystique every Moroccan spice merchant has their own secret recipe, and it’s a source of great pride to create the most premium quality. Some use ash berries, earth almond or chufa, grains of paradise for its hints of citrus, as well as cubebs for its aromatic properties, a cross between all spice and black pepper that North Africans use to flavour cigarettes. Once upon a time it contained Spanish Fly an emerald-green beetle known for its aphrodisiac properties but its use has since been banned in Morocco. Many merchants guard their Ras el Hanout recipes very closely but that’s not an obstacle for us because I’ve discovered a few secrets. To get the most intense flavor and fragrance, it is best to roast and grind individual spices for a home-made variation that can pass as a superior quality, expertly blended product. I’m going to show you how to make it with as many of the secret ingredients I could get my hands on, which doesn’t come anywhere close to sixty, but is still amazing. Of course it would be criminal to give you this recipe without giving you a tagine recipe or vice versa so stay posted for an excellent recipe on how to get the most out of your new spice blend, meanwhile allow this treasure to age a bit in an airtight container to strengthen its flavours.
- 1 Tb fennel seeds
- 1 Tb black mustard seeds
- 1 Tb cumin seeds
- 1 Tb coriander seeds
- 1 tsp black pepper seeds
- 1 tsp ground nutmeg
- 1 tsp chilli flakes of cayenne pepper
- 1 tsp ground all spice
- 1 tsp saffron threads
- 5 cloves
- 3 star anise
- 25 dried rose petals (small)
- 1 tsp dried lavender flowers
- 5cm cinammon quill
- 6 bay dried bay leaves
- 15 cardamom pods (dehusked)
- *Toast the first 4 ingredients listed above in a dry pan until aromatic.
- Set aside to cool.
- Grind the toasted seeds very finely with the rest of the ingredients.
- Store in an airtight container for up to 6 months or preferably a *sterilised glass jar.
Maestros Need to Know *To toast in means to cook over dry heat to release the ingredients nuttiest qualities. *The best method to use when sterilizing a jar is to put them in a saucepan of cold water, bring to the boil and boil for 10 minutes. Allow them to dry in the oven on low heat for ten minutes. *When shopping for spices for this recipe go to a reputable spice merchant. Inspect the spices especially if they are pre packed to ensure that they are free of parasites that feed on dry spices. *Use a coffee grinder to grind the spices or alternatively a pestle and mortar but this is quite time-consuming.