Ras el hanout

I was deep into preparing the aubergine shawarma; all the aubergines were cut, salted and resting while they released their liquids; the onions were just in the pan… and then I realised we did not have any of that mysterious “ras el hanout” spice mix. I did not even know how it looked like!

Not being one to panic (as we have a decently stocked spice selection in the kitchen), but also not being one with her hands on a device connected to the internet, I requested help from Devvers, who was in front of a computer:

Can you tell me which spices go into ras el hanout?

After a brief search, of course the bbc food website emerged to the top with this seemingly never-ending list of ingredients:

  • 2 ½ tbsp cumin seed
  • 2 tbsp coriander seed
  • 1 tbsp ground cinnamon or 1 cinnamon stick
  • 2 tsp ground ginger
  • 2 tsp black peppercorn
  • 1 tsp ground turmeric
  • ½ tsp cardamom seeds (seeds from about 10 pods)

The kitchen counter was quickly populated with many pots of various shapes, sizes and origins, and I also produced the ultimate magic tools that would bind everything together: the mortar and pestle!

Hand-held cast iron mortar and pestle
Hand-held cast iron mortar and pestle

I made a small batch with half the amounts in the recipe.

But the aubergine shawarma was so extremely successful, that I decided to cook it again a week later.

And that time, I also made a BIG batch of ras el hanout, using The Mortar and Pestle. Not the small handy one, but the We Mean Business Stone Mortar And Pestle.

Stone mortar and pestle
Stone mortar and pestle

Don’t the curves and the weight of the stone already convey the promise that it can deliver onto your cooking? Do you not feel extremely inspired when you see this beautiful piece of human engineering? I do, and so here’s my…

Poem to the stone mortar and pestle

No peppercorn shall emerge
once this pestle begins its pounding,
journey towards the center of the mortar
and back to the margin

The finest scents will emerge;
seeds and spices will release
carefully held treasures,

More poetic waxing could follow… but in the meantime, just compare the baby mortar and pestle with the mega mortar and pestle:

Hand-held cast iron and stone mortar and pestle, side by side
Hand-held cast iron and stone mortar and pestle, side by side

And I then stored this bigger batch of ras el hanout in this pot that used to contain pickles in a previous life, and is also the perfect width to pour spices in and out (narrow necks are terrible), and the perfect height as it’s not too tall and it can be stored and piled on top of other spices.

A pot with home-made ras el hanout spice mix, and a label on the lid that says "ras el hanout"
Home-made ras el hanout spice mix

And now, let me tell you about that time in which I fell down an Internet rabbit hole of Algerian culture

I started learning about ras el hanout… and ended up reading about Algerian cuisine as a whole.

To start with a ras el hanout fact, it seems that actually adding saffron to the spice mix is very much a non-African twist. In reality, the spice mixes you can buy in Algeria do not include it, for the same reason that I veered off from the BBC recipe and did not include it either: to make the mix more versatile. I felt pleased that my intuition matched tradition!

It also seems that there are many variations on the ingredients it can include, depending on region, time of the year, shop, person, etc, and sometimes they even include my beloved tiger nuts i.e. chufas, the same tuber that is used in making horchata. So interesting! I shall put this in practice.

An etymological fact: the name in Arabic means “head of the shop” but also “top shelf”… which refers to the best the shop has to offer. It’s like the greatest hits of the shop!

It is also actually pronounced raʾs al-ḥānūt, and written راس الحانوت‎. I know no Arabic but I love how it looks like—maybe some future hobby? 😏

And something to trap me even deeper into the Internet hole: for some mysterious reasons that I still haven’t quite figured out, an early relative of mine was born near Oran, in Algeria. I’ve never set foot in Algeria, but I’ve always been very intrigued as to how it is there.

Combine this curiosity with our current inability to go places, and you can imagine how exploring somewhere, even if only through words, would be absolute food for the soul.

Suddenly I was transported miles away, to a place of blue skies, the scent of sea in the air mixed with the scent of the blossoms coming from field after field of happily growing clementines…

As a guest, I’d be offered coffee (perhaps infused with cardamom) as a welcome drink , while the hosts finish cooking the food and setting up the table.

There would be home-made bread, often cooked on pans and pots rather than ovens, as a sign of embracing me into their family. And although they very much prefer French bread like baguettes because it’s a “sign of distinction”, they also believe, like my older relatives, that the inside of the baguettes leads to constipation, so they throw the fluffy bits away (yes, I’m not kidding!) and eat only the crust. Which is boring, so instead they prefer accompanying their food with their traditional, more nutritious and rustic breads.

There would be a multitude of vegetables and salads, and I’d metaphorically float in a sea of heavily spiced stews with multiple similar sounding transcriptions but not all referring to the same thing in fact, like chakchouka, chakhchoura, chekhechoukha, tchektchouka and shakshouka, abandoning myself to the occlusive ambiguity and to the flavours taking my senses by surprise.

I’d probably need a lot of yoghurt and mint tea to soothe my poor taste buds afterwards!

And I would still have to try out their Spanish-Algerian dishes like the “Gaspacho oranais”—a mountain stew like the Castilla-La Mancha gazpacho, but cooked “the Oran way”…

Incredibly intriguing, and also the point at which I decided to stop digging, because the English articles I found were not as detailed as I wanted to get and I started using Google Translate to read originals from French and Arab… and I felt that it was starting to be a bit too much!

You have to draw the line somewhere.

And while I come back or not to the mysteries of Algerian food, here’s another picture of my mix:

A pot with home-made ras el hanout spice mix, seen from above
A pot with home-made ras el hanout spice mix, seen from above

And a link to something Algerian which has pretty much nothing to do with spices: Algerian Coffee Stores.

Au revoir!

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