Moroccan cuisine and its spice choices are based on a historical development of this country and region. In the seventh century, Arabs started populating the country that was previously inhabited by Berbers only and also brought their food traditions with them. Thanks to them, current Moroccan cuisine uses such spices as cinnamon, ginger, saffron, caraway and cumin. It combines sour and sweet tastes in one dish and also intensively uses honey, sugar, nuts and fruits in meat dishes. On the other hand, Morocco is the only large Arab country that wasn’t a part of the Ottoman Empire, and that’s why common middle eastern dishes like baklava and stuffed vegetables have not spread to Morocco.
Moroccan spices are slightly similar to Indian spice mixes, however they are more subtle and mild and have less heat to them.
How to use spices in Moroccan cooking?
Always use the freshest spices that are available to you. Try to avoid using pre-ground spices as the aroma wears off very quickly. Instead aim to get whole spices and grind them at home, just before adding to the dishes you are cooking. If you are using ground spices don’t be afraid to add more than it is stated in a recipe, unless you are using one of the really strong spices, such as anise or cardamom. It is also recommended to toast spices on a dry pan before cooking with them, as this reveals their flavour and makes them more aromatic.
Ras El Hanout
Ras El Hanout is probably one of the most popular Moroccan spice mixes. Ras el hanout translates to ‘head of the shop’, meaning, it’s the best the shop has to offer. Each shop has its own pride in their ras el hanout recipe. Ingredients and their ratios vary significantly depending on the area or cook’s taste. It would usually consist of around 13 different spices. Some ras el hanouts are red, others are dark brown. Normally ras el hanout is sold by spice mongers at the market as a ready ground mix or as a selecting of whole, unground spices that should be ground at home. It is in many savory dishes, in tagines, as a marinade or a rub.
Moroccan Ras El hanout consists of cardamom, nutmeg, allspice, turmeric, ginger, black pepper, coriander, cloves, paprika, cinnamon, mace, star anise and white pepper. But it can have up to 20 spices!
Harissa is probably one of the most well known Moroccan spice mixes. It is used to add additional heat and aroma to meat and fish dishes. It is based on chilli peppers and comes in wet and dry forms. Learn how to make harissa.
Cinnamon is often known as an aromatic spice used in desserts and pastries, while in the Morocco cinnamon is often used in a savory dishes as well as lamb and chicken dishes. When used in little amounts, cinnamon adds a certain sweet flavor and an aroma complexity to the spice mix. It is also used to add another aroma dimension to couscous and other grains, especially when dishes are served with raisins and other dried fruits.
Cumin has a recognisable flavor to it with a nutty, earthy taste and warm, slightly bitter notes to it. Cumin works extremely well with lamb, beans, lentils, couscous, eggplants and vegetable dishes in general. It also blends well with other spices.
Cloves have a very strong flavor somehow resembling taste of cinnamon, ginger and anise seed with notes camphor and pepper. As the flavour is strong, it is recommended to use this spice sparingly as it may easily overpower all other tastes.
Turmeric is similar to saffron in terms of taste and color and therefore sometimes used instead of it. The flavor resembles a combination black pepper and ginger. Turmeric is often used to color dishes such as tagines.
Saffron gives food a beautiful bright yellow color and a distinct honey aroma and is intensively used in tagines, and some side dishes such as rice and couscous. Read more about saffron here.
Nutmeg is used intensively in Moroccan cuisine. Mixed with ground ginger, it is often added to chicken, lamb and fish dishes. Nutmeg is often used in desserts - thanks to its spicy and sweet taste, it works well with honey cakes.
Black pepper is the spice that is used in almost all Moroccan dishes and also probably one of the most common seasonings around the world. It tends to lose its aroma when ground, therefore try to use freshly ground pepper if you can.
White pepper is made from the same berries as black pepper but prepared differently. It is fruitier and spicier than black pepper and has a musty flavour to it. It is often used for roasting meat and in salads.
Ginger has got a strong aroma and a spicy taste to it. It is used for desserts and sweet dishes, however it is often used in chicken dishes too. Be careful while using ginger, as too much of it can make the dish taste bitter.
Cardamom has a very strong and unique taste. It is sometimes added to Ras El Hanout spice mix. In Moroccan cuisine, it is also being added to chicken, veal and fish dishes in small amounts on its own. In some countries in the Persian Gulf, cardamom is added to coffee too.
Nigella seeds are small black seeds with a distinct flavour. They are often called black cumin, which is not completely right. Nigella seeds are completely black and are shorter and rounder than usual cumin. The actual black cumin, kala jeera, looks very similar to normal cumin, just a bit darker. Nigella seeds are often used to garnish dishes during the final stages of cooking.
Anise seeds have a very distinct aroma similar to liquorice and are used in Moroccan cooking and baking. Anise can also be used ground. Anise seeds can sometimes be replaced with fennel seeds.
Sweet paprika is made of dried red bell peppers and is used to season a wide selection of dishes. It works especially well with stews and soups.
Fenugreek is a highly fragrant spice. Its seeds have a bitter taste to them. It is mostly used in curries in Indian cuisine, however it is used in Moroccan recipes too. It adds a complex combination of bitter caramel aromas to the dishes.