The great sea voyages of the Portuguese explorers Ferdinand Magellan, who served for a while in Morocco, Vasco de Gama and the Spanish captain Christopher Columbus expanded trade routes around the world and especially the spice trade and the security of these routes was crucial. Morocco was on the route between Europe, the Middle East and Asia and therefore acquired a number of spices as Portuguese and Spanish enclaves and ports were established along the Moroccan coast.
Spices are a key element in Moroccan cuisine. Freshly ground spices in colored mounds can be spotted in all Moroccan souks. With their distinctive smells, Moroccan spices are recommended to be used after being freshly ground. Many spices and ingredients once imported are now home grown in Morocco such as Saffron from Talouine and Cumin from Tazarine.
Saffron is one of the most expensive spices in the world and is widely used in Moroccan cuisine for coloring and flavor. The production of one single kilogram of saffron requires 150,000 flowers. The separating of the stamen from the purple flower is done exclusively by women. One gram of saffron can cost on average US$6.28 depending on quality and quantity. The world market today for spices is said to be valued at US $ 4 billion.
Other Moroccan spices used include cinnamon, cumin, coriander, paprika, turmeric, saffron, white pepper, red chili, cloves and sesame. All can be found in Moroccan souks. As of recent Morocco is now a big exporter of spices as well. The main Moroccan spice export is Ras el Hanout which translates as the “head of shop” which is essentially a mix of over 30 spices. A Moroccan Ra el Hanout mix can be purchased or can be made along with a local shop keeper by his suggestion of spices.
Ras el Hanout can be sprinkled on chicken or fish before baking, frying or grilling. The blend of spices delivers flavor and a subtle fragrant aroma which is one of the many secrets of Moroccan cuisine. Moroccan housewives will likely have their own spice recipes for lamb tangine or couscous. The art is to develop your own spice recipes although at first you are like to follow other people’s. Spices are essential for tajines, couscous and for lamb dishes. For sweets the spice mixture bssibissa kakalu is high recommended.
Spices can be derived from a dried seed, fruit, root, bark, or vegetative substance primarily used for flavoring, coloring or preserving food. Sometimes a spice is used to hide other flavors. They can have medicinal properties, garlic for instance can be an antibiotic.
In the Middle Ages spices were prized because refrigeration did not exist and therefore dried and salted meat became extremely dull fare. Spices brought to life the taste of food and inspired to otherwise less interesting dishes.
Moroccan cuisine has become increasingly popular with Moroccan restaurants springing up all over America and Europe and throughout the Middle East.
A combination of targeted publicity, excellence and a number of distinguished cookery authors such as the renowned American cookery expert Paula Wolfert, have encouraged this popularity along with tourists who have been inspired to try their hand at cooking Moroccan dishes at home. Spices are part Morocco’s international success story as a diverse and fascinating places to visit for those who are foodies and have a penchant for exotic cuisine.
Written by Colin Kilkelly