In the souks of Marrakech, spices fill the air with their aroma, giving one a whiff of the exotic. Their fragrance conjures “Arabian Nights” fantasies while the conical displays of ground spices, dazzling in their brilliant colors, tempt a quenching of the taste buds with just a pinch.

Spices define Moroccan cuisine and while some are culled from the East, most are endemic to the country. There’s felfla (cayenne), kamoon (cumin), karfa (cinnamon), quekoum (turmeric) and zafrane (saffron). But of the lot, one holds much recognition: ras el hanout.

It is a spice blend of up to 18 spices, often even more, according to Rachid Agouray, executive chef of iconic La Mamounia hotel. “My mother makes it. My grandmother made it. Berber women from 11 centuries ago made it,” he says. “It’s part of being Moroccan.”

The chef explains that each family has a different version of ras el hanout, so no two concoctions are exactly the same. Agouray likes to use cardamom, cinnamon, black pepper, muscat, cumin and nutmeg, among others. Given this, cooks are cautious in sharing their secret blends. They’re less guarded with distributing the final product, but never with the recipe.

Getting the right balance and nuance of this varied spice is just as challenging as figuring out how it came to be. It literally means “top of the shop” in Arabic, and many believe it represents the best blend a spice merchant has to offer. While others say the name refers to the beautifully sculpted pyramidical piles of spice found in the market, there are some who would think otherwise and claim its roots in Ethiopia, where ras is a title for a king, consequently glorifying the spice purveyors and his items.

It is a spice blend of up to 18 spices, often even more, according to Rachid Agouray, executive chef of iconic La Mamounia hotel. “My mother makes it. My grandmother made it. Berber women from 11 centuries ago made it,” he says. “It’s part of being Moroccan.”

The spices are first toasted then ground and blended and lastly, adjusted to taste preference. People who clamor for heat throw in whole peppers for that warm tingle in the throat. Made fresh, ras el hanout gives off an alluring aroma that is distinctly Moroccan. Those readily available at the souk, though not as aromatic, still manage to deliver a deep and delicious punch.

These days, ras el hanout has come to include peculiar ingredients that add a surprising whimsy to an otherwise familiar mix. From the caraway, fenugreek and galangal to dried lavender, fennel flowers, Japanese white ginger and an assortment of peppers, the pungent spice takes on myriad characters to liven up dishes, be it as a dry rub for poultry and meat to a flavor enhancer for rice and dips.

What it’s used mainly for is braising. A pinch of ras el hanout is added to virtually any dish (with the exception of fish) for that authentic Moroccan sweetness and aroma. All are mixed up and ground to produce a powdered potion that adds a tinge of palatability to lamb, chicken, rabbit, lamb shank and lamb shoulder.

Ras el hanout is definitely much more than the sum of its individual parts.

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