What Is Ras El Hanout? The Story Behind The Spice

The “head of the shop”…

Spice blends are an important part of Middle Eastern cookery. Blends like dukkah and za’atar are widely used and help to create complex and distinctive flavor profiles; however, no blend is more complex and distinctive than ras el hanout. The name translates to “head of the shop” — meaning, the best spices that a spice shop has to offer — and it has a strong association with Moroccan cuisine even though there are versions of it in Algeria and Tunisia. 

The blend has its origins way back in Morocco’s history. For a long time, the country was a crucial gateway by which goods flowed from Africa to Europe, which made it an especially important player in the spice trade. As a result, spices from all over the world found their way into Morocco and were assimilated into its food culture. Those spices are represented in the virtually unlimited variety that you see in ras el hanout. 

What does ras el hanout taste like?

Unlike most other spice blends that typically have fewer than a dozen ingredients, ras el hanout can consist of dozens. Both spice merchants and home cooks have the freedom to create blends consisting of as many spices as they desire.

That’s why answering the question “What is ras el hanout?” can be quite tricky. There is no agreed-upon recipe, so a blend can include common spices like black pepper and allspice as well as rarer and more exotic ones like belladonna berries and Spanish fly. Blends vary according to the spice merchants. Historically, spice merchants used ras el hanout to showcase the best spices in their inventory. Blends can also vary depending on the region and from family to family. 

Because ras el hanout ingredients can be so numerous, the flavor profile is highly variable. Each blend will have a specific taste. Many cooks skip the ultra-obscure ingredients and make blends with common spices like cumin, coriander, and cardamom. The result is often a flavor similar to that of curry powder or garam masala. When carefully assembled, a ras el hanout blend should be layered with multiple complementary flavor and aroma notes. 

Is ras el hanout spicy?

Ras el hanout can contain chili peppers and other ingredients that carry a bit of heat. For example, black pepper shows up in most blends while cayenne and long pepper are optional.

The point is that it can be spicy but does not have to be. When it does contain hot spices, the point of the blend is to showcase numerous flavors so no one spice will overwhelm all the others; that is, unless you want it to be hot. Traditional ras el hanout is seldom a highly spicy blend in terms of pure capsaicin or piperine heat. Its flavor profile is supposed to be mysterious and unique.  

Homemade Ras El Hanout
A bold mix of exotic spices
Check out this recipe
Homemade Ras El Hanout

What are some common uses?

Ras el hanout’s applications are almost as numerous as its ingredients. The traditional ways to use it include as a seasoning for tagines, which are dishes named after the earthenware vessels in which they are cooked. Examples include lamb and chicken tagines.

It’s also useful as a dry rub for meats cooked over an open flame. The spice blend is commonly used to season the broth in which couscous is cooked. You can as an all-purpose seasoning if you want to try non-traditional applications. For example, you can use it to season your popcorn or vegetables that you plan to roast such as carrots or sweet potatoes.

UPDATE NOTICE: This post was updated on September 12, 2019 to include new content.
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