Story and  photos by Manos Angelakis

Morocco Chefchaouen Spice Market

Moroccan Spice Markets

Spice markets are ubiquitous in the souks of the Moroccan medinas, and every merchant carries hundreds of individual aromatic herbs and spices from all over the world; modern medicine has proven that many of them have medicinal properties above and beyond their culinary value. Nutmeg, for example has excellent anti-bacterial properties; turmeric is used for its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-fungal properties; ginger is very effective against nausea; fenugreek is used to stimulate the metabolism but is also very effective in combating ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.

Morocco Spices on kitchen counter

Spice blends have been used for a long time in Moroccan kitchens and, at the culinary schools I visited in Fez and Marrakech, assorted spice recipes are used to flavor both Halal and Kosher Moroccan dishes; religious dietary laws of both religions have been observed in the country since the expulsion of non-Christian peoples from Spain and Portugal. From the 15th to the 20th century Morocco was home to a large Jewish population and many Sephardic/Moroccan expatriates from Israel return for visits to their ancestral homes, cemeteries and synagogues in the cities of Morocco. 

 Morocco Tajine on Stove Burner

The most common spice mixture, the one that gives most Moroccan dishes their very distinctive taste is Ras el Hanout – which literary translates to “top of the shop”; it is the very best that a spice merchant has to offer. Each composition is supposedly a well guarded secret and each seller combines between 15 to 100 different spices and herbs, then lightly toasts and grinds them to a powder.

The following recipe of Ras el Hanout is a classic, from a spice merchant in the Marrakech medina.

1 tbsp allspice berries
1 tbsp coriander seeds
1 tbsp fennel seeds
1 tbsp ground turmeric
1 tsp dry oregano leaves
2 tsp cardamom seeds
2 tsp cumin seeds
2 tsp fenugreek seeds
2 tsp black peppercorns
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground nutmeg
1 tsp dehydrated garlic flakes
3 cloves
1 star anise
1 tbsp sea salt

At the bottom of a medium skillet or a tajine combine ingredients -- except sea salt, turmeric, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger -- and toast over low heat stirring constantly until the spices start coloring lightly, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from direct heat; do not let the spices burn.

In a small grinder add the toasted ingredients plus the salt, turmeric, nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger and grind. Remove to a dark, tight closed glass jar; you can safely store the blend for 3 months in a cool place or up to 5 months in a refrigerator.

Some aromatics, such as bay leaf (laurel), cinnamon bark, etc. are used whole when preparing sauces or soups, but are discarded at the end; laurel is considered poisonous if ingested. 

Morocco Vegetable Stew

Another very popular mixture is from the Berber villages of the Atlas Mountains. This hot, spicy blend is mostly used to flavor cooked vegetables and lentil/legume dishes as part of a vegetable-centric diet.

Épice Berber (Berber Spice):

6 dried red chili peppers
1 tsp black peppercorns
2 tsp allspice berries
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp cardamom seeds
1 tsp fenugreek seeds
1 tsp ground cinnamon
4 cloves

Cut the chili pods into small pieces and discard seeds and stems. In a small skillet combine all ingredients and toast on a low fire stirring constantly until the seeds start to pop. Remove from direct heat and do not let the spices smoke and burn. Grind cooled mixture and store as above.

Morocco Stewed Chicken and Peppers

Épice Juif (Jewish Spice):

At a spice shop in Chefchaouen, by the main square, the spice merchant was offering an Anise-flavored “Épice Juif” spice blend in small plastic bags. This delicate seasoning, similar to the Middle-Eastern Za’atar, is a rub for chicken, rooster or pigeons cooked on a grill.

4 tbsp fennel seeds
2 tbsp coriander seeds
1 tsp sumac
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp thyme
½ tsp ground nutmeg
1 star anise
1 tsp kosher salt

Toast seeds and spices under low heat for 2 or 3 minutes except for the salt. Start grinding ingredients in a small grinder, add salt and continue grinding until you have a fairly coarse blend. Store in dark glass jar as is indicated above.

The Jewish residents of Tangier used a mix of a tbsp of the Anise seasoning in a blend of 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil and 1 tsp fresh lemon juice. They would rub both sides of a fish before grilling as well as seasoning the belly cavity with the mixture. Residents of other cities still use just the dry ground spice blend.




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