Herbs and spices are the palette of the kitchen—knowing how to mix, match and balance them is the mark of a true chef, one who can imagine flavor. For a long time, the American spice shelf was pretty standard, but in the last few years our pantry has gotten larger. Now chefs incorporate flavors from Indonesia, Africa and the Middle East as well as the ones we know from Europe, Central America, China and Japan.
The latest exotic appearing on menus is the spice blend called ras el hanout. The words mean “top shelf” and it’s commonly used in North African cooking. Like Indian curry or garam masala, every home cook has their own version, but most include cardamom, cumin, clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, allspice, dry ginger, chili peppers, coriander seed, peppercorn, sweet and hot paprika, fenugreek and dry turmeric.
“I am Israeli,” says Vessel Kitchen chef and partner, Roe’e Levy, “so ras el hanout is not exotic to me. I’m a spice freak and I use lots of spices from the Middle East but also from all over—Korean chili, sumac, kaffir lime, a spice blend called hawaji. We blend the spices ourselves. Ras el hanout is traditionally Moroccan and we use it for roasted chicken—the fragrance complements the chicken—but we use the chicken in other dishes, braised chicken and bone broth, for example, so the spice flavor carries through.”
Ras el hanout would be equally good on lamb, pork or even whole fish. Use it to give an exotic edge to tomato or vegetable soup (add chickpeas to your basic recipe) or to a lamb stew. It also adds excitement to vegetables—cauliflower, for example—or a mixed vegetable saute.
Find ras el hanout at Williams-Sonoma or online.
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