Essential Spices in Moroccan Cooking

Moroccan spices
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A wide variety of spices is used in Moroccan cooking to create rich, flavorful sauces and zesty—but not too spicy—side dishes and salads.

Moroccans tend to go through their spice supplies quickly. This means that old, bitter spices are rarely an issue. For best results when cooking a Moroccan dish, make sure that you’re using fresh spices.

Four Basic Spices

There are four basic spices every Moroccan kitchen must have in order to prepare basic meat and vegetable tagines and stews.

  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Ginger
  • Turmeric

Other Common Spices

Other spices frequently encountered in Moroccan cooking include:

  • Saffron
  • Paprika
  • Cumin
  • Cinnamon
  • White pepper

Ras El Hanout

Ras el hanout (also spelled rass el hanout) is a blend of aromatic ground spices that is easy to prepare and is used extensively in specialty Moroccan cuisine, sometimes rubbed on meat or fish, or stirred into couscous or rice, but typically not used for everyday cooking. 

The name's literal translation from Arabic is “head of the shop," an expression which actually means "the best offering of the shop." Recipes for ras el hanout vary, but they frequently include cardamom, nutmeg, anise, mace, cinnamon, ginger, various peppers, and turmeric, but a total of 30 or more ingredients might be used in some recipes.

Due to its liberal use in mrouzia, a lamb and honey dish with intense seasoning, ras el hanout also is sometimes called mrouzia spice.

In addition to mrouzia, ras el hanout is used to flavor lamb tagine, dried fruit tagine, beef tagine, vegetarian chickpea and carrot tagine, pumpkin, chickpea, and tomato soup, couscous, and chicken shawarma.

You'd be hard pressed to find the same version of this spice blend in two different families with slight flavor variations from household to household being the norm. When purchasing premade ras el hanout, it's a good idea to sample some to make sure it's the type you like.

Morocco and the Spice Trade

Morocco was on the spice trade route between Europe, the Middle East, and Asia and therefore acquired new spices from these lands to add to its already rich arsenal of native spices.

Costly saffron, for example, was once imported and is now grown in Morocco and used widely in the cuisine for coloring and flavor. And just as Morocco once imported many spices, one of its major spice exports today is ras el hanout.

Measuring Spices

Seasoning preferences vary widely, with most Moroccans cooking from memory and experience rather than following precise measurements in a written recipe—a pinch-of-this and a pinch-of-that approach to cooking. So if you run across a Moroccan recipe from back in the day, this is what you might encounter.