--- Join Ainsley Harriott in Ainsley's Mediterranean Cookbook, Sundays 8.30pm on SBS Food or stream it on SBS On Demand. Catch his stop in Morocco in episode 5, Sunday 20 September ---
When Ainsley Harriott heads to the spice stalls of a bustling souk in Morocco, he’s after one particular vibrant ingredient: ras el hanout, a blend of up to 30 or even more spices, the exact blend often a spice seller’s secret.
“Ras el hanout means ‘head of the shop’ and implies that it will be a mixture of the best spices the seller has to offer,” says Harriott, as he asks a spice merchant what’s in his particular blend. It has, the spice seller says, 35 spices, including cinnamon, cardamom, star anise, hibiscus, dried berries and peppercorns.
It is a heady mix that, as Harriott discovers when he inhales the aroma of a jar of ground ras el hanout, “just gets right into your senses. That is so, so wonderful.”
Hailing from Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, ras el hanout varies from shop to shop and household to household, although cumin and coriander seeds, cinnamon, turmeric, ginger and nutmeg are common ingredients, with other additions including rosebuds, oregano, star anise, mace, chillies, paprika, cloves, ash berries, cubebs, peppercorns and fennel.
Depending on the blend, it can vary from vibrant orange to a brown-grey. It's easy to buy, or if you'd like to make your own you could try this recipe from Sydney chef Hassan M'Souli, the version SBS host Shane Delia shares in his lamb and pine nut kibbeh recipe or chef Pierre Khodja's version in his royal couscous recipe.
So how do you use this heady blend? It works in both sweet and savoury dishes: here are some more of our favourites, from rich lamb tagines to cauliflower salad and a sweet olive oil cake.
Buckwheat, a nutty, gluten-free grain is paired with charry, caramelised cauliflower, rich with flavour from the ras el hanout. Mint, pistachios and pomegranate seeds, if they are in season, round out this flavour-packed Moroccan salad.
Here's an Aussie twist on using this North African favourite: grilled tuna steak, coated with a mix of crushed coriander and cumin seeds, sesame seeds and ras el-hanout.
A twist on a family favourite, this recipe can be made with other meats, too, or the sauce served as it was originally, as a vegetarian side dish.
Adrian Richardson's rich pork ribs are marinated in chilli, ginger, garlic and ras el hanout, and caramelised on a hot barbecue.
"It’s so powerful, you know, I just want to be able to do something quite simple," says Ainsley Harriott when he cooks this charry, aromatic dish with his spice shop purchase. The ras el hanout is used along with three citrusy elements: lemon zest, lemon juice and preserved lemon, plus a little chilli, in the butter, which is rubbed all over the corn cobs before they are re-covered in their husks and grilled.
A lamb tagine is a classic use of ras el hanout. In this version, from the Feast magazine archives, the combination of fragrant spices, fruit and honey helps to cut through the richness of the lamb, and the resulting braise has a wonderful balance of sweet and sour flavours.
We've included three lamb tagines because there are just so many good ways to embrace this classic comfort food - and this one takes things next-level with tfaya, honey-spiked caramelised onions.
"With the crisp filo, sweet mint custard and apples, it’s pretty much everything you could want in a dessert, especially when paired with the date and ras el hanout ice-cream," says Shane Delia of his mint and apple b'stilla, his twist on a traditional Moroccan pie.
“Paired with a salted white chocolate ice-cream, this dish has all the flavours of the desert – dates, olive oil, salt and spice. It might seem like a lot of syrup to pour over the top but trust me, it can take it and it’s worth it!” says Shane Delia. Here the ras el hanout is used in the cake, which is served with a spicy-citrusy syrup and salted white chocolate ice-cream.
“When I visited Fes, the festival of Eid was about to begin. For days, the tiny streets of the Medina were full of excitement as every family took a goat or sheep home with them for the biggest festival of the year. All the shops closed, the tourists were gone and in their place were rows of fires with teenagers cooking bits of sheep that I couldn’t always recognise. It was a surreal scene as the smoke drifted through streets that just 24 hours earlier were packed with people. I’m not brave enough to cook some of the traditional dishes that families have prepared for generations; it would be like someone knocking on my door and telling me how to cook a turkey! But I do have a favourite lamb tagine dish that’s thickened with lentils. It’s not traditional, but I felt confident enough to try it out on my new friend, Abdelali, who had been kind enough to take me to his secret eating spots around the Medina.” Ainsley Harriott, Ainsley Harriott’s Street Food
Chef Hassan M'Souli, of Sydney's Out of Africa restaurant, shares a recipe for mrousia – a sweet-and-spicy Moroccan lamb tagine. You don't need a tagine to cook this - just a large saucepan, and you'll be seduced by the aromas as well as the simplicity of this dish.
You can serve this as a side dish with barbecued lamb, but it’s also delicious on its own – just add a dollop of Greek yoghurt. Grilling the tomatoes adds a wonderful intensity of flavour to this Moroccan couscous recipe.
This fragrant and colourful salad balances the strong flavour of spiced chicken livers with zesty pomegranate and peppery watercress. You can buy ras el hanout, a Moroccan blend of up to 20 spices, from selected delis and specialist food shops.
This recipe was prepared at the launch of Measure Up – the Government’s initiative in the fight against obesity – by Zahi Azzi and Aaron Callandar of Kazbah on Darling. It features a number of key ingredients in Moroccan cooking, including coucous, the spice mix ras el hanout, chermoula, pomegranate and spicy harissa.