Want to know what makes Moroccan food so delicious? It’s the SPICES.
Moroccans use their spices liberally and frequently so they don’t stick around in the cupboards very long. For this reason, it’s best to use fresh spices to recreate the authentic strong, bold flavors of Moroccan dishes. Here’s the key to getting the best results when making Moroccan food and using spices in general:
Buy your spices by weight, not in bulk.
Most ground spices you find at the grocery store are sold in large containers. But you usually only cook with a teaspoon or two so these can take years to use, all the while losing their potency and flavor. No bueno.
The solution: if you’re making a dish where spices are the star, buy your spices fresh and in small quantities. You can visit a specialty spice market and many large grocery stores also now sell spices by weight. Look for bright, vibrant color and strong aromatics when checking for freshness.
Buy whole spices and grind them at home.
If you want your spices to last a few years, buy them whole. Ground spices lose most of their potency within a year. The old spices won’t make you sick but they also won’t do much in the flavor department. Whole spices can stay on the shelf much longer and when you need them you can throw them in a spice or coffee grinder or go old school and pull out the mortar and pestle. Trust me, using fresh whole spices will make a difference you can smell AND taste.
Here’s a brief list of spices you’ll see, smell and taste in the Moroccan kitchen. You don’t necessarily need all of these spices to make every Moroccan dish, but you’ll find that many of them are probably staples you already have on hand.
Salt is incorporated into pretty much every savory Moroccan dish and coarse salt is usually used in Moroccan homes. You can easily use kosher or sea salt to replicate Moroccan recipes. But if you’re switching over from iodized salt, I recommend going light on the salt at first. I realized going from Morton’s to kosher salt that there are varying degrees of saltiness. Just remember, you can always add more salt, but it’ll be a headache trying to take it out.
Pepper is another essential in the Moroccan home. It comes in different colors: black, white and green. Fresh ground pepper offers the most pungent flavor, and for best results purchase the berries and ground them at home. I toss mine in a coffee grinder on the espresso setting and keep a small pre-ground supply that I can sprinkle in as I cook. For dishes where you want a more subtle flavor, especially in the sweet/savory dishes Morocco is known for, white pepper offers a nice mild alternative.
You’ll find dry, ground ginger used throughout Moroccan cooking to flavor tajines, couscous, soups and many other dishes. It has a pale yellow to brownish yellow color and adds a tangy and distinct aroma. The flavor of dried ginger is quite different and mellower than fresh ginger. Because its flavor isn’t as pungent, it’s best added when a dish is almost complete so it doesn’t become overcooked and lose its flavor.
Cumin is a main ingredient in Moroccan cooking and is used to flavor meats, salads, stews and tajines. The spice comes from ground dried seeds of a plant related to parsley and is one of my all-around favorites in the kitchen. Moroccan cumin is very fragrant and adds a slightly nutty, bitter taste. I like to heat mine in the cooking oil with other aromatics (onions, garlic, etc.) to help the flavor really bloom. In Morocco you may also find it, along with salt, on the dining table.
Morocco is a leading producer of saffron, particularly in the High Atlas region, and it is used to flavor tajines, rice dishes and the traditional Moroccan soup harira. Saffron threads are cultivated from the pistil of the crocus flower and it takes about 200,000 flowers to produce one kilo of saffron. But you don’t need to add much to a dish because these babies are powerful and fragrant. Just a few threads are all that’s needed to give a dish the signature saffron goodness. Saffron adds a unique taste along with a strong aroma and helps give the distinctive yellow color of Moroccan dishes.
Tumeric is a versatile spice that is used for everything from dyes, to medicine, to a cosmetic remedy, but most deliciously it’s used in food. It imparts a wonderful yellow color to tajines and rice dishes, but watch out because it will also impart that color to your clothes. It comes from the dried root of the plant curcuma longa and has a fragrant, floral scent with a touch of metallic bitterness — some describe it as a combination of ginger and pepper.
This isn’t exactly a spice, but you’re likely to see it used often in Moroccan kitchen. Cooks add this bright orange powder to dishes to give them a yellow color. It can be used in addition to or in place of turmeric and saffron but it doesn’t add any taste or aroma to the food and is chemically based. You won’t find these little white packets of coloring widely available outside of Morocco, but you can sub in annatto powder to provide color and a more natural alternative.
Cinnamon is used frequently in Moroccan desserts and recipes like pastilla (bisteeya), tajines, fruit salads and lamb dishes. Cinnamon is native to Morocco and the spice comes from the bark of the cinnamon tree. In Moroccan cooking, both ground cinnamon and the bark are used. It’s a fragrant, sweet spice that also adds a wonderful dimension to couscous and dishes made with raisins.
Paprika is made from dried red peppers and is used in Moroccan cooking to add color and flavor to soups, meats, and salads. You’ll find both sweet and hot varieties of paprika, and can range in color from deep red to orange red depending on the type of peppers used. Moroccans normally stir a small amount of olive oil into paprika before adding it to the dish.
Ras El Hanout
Ras El Hanout is a spice mixture that you’ll find at every Moroccan spice shop. The literal translation of this Arabic phrase is “head of the shop,” because these spices are the best the shop has to offer. Recipes for Ras El Hanout vary and can include up to 30 ingredients, but they frequently include cardamom, nutmeg, anise, mace, cinnamon, ginger, various peppers and turmeric. You can find this premixed at specialty spice shops and I’ve recently seen it on the shelves at Trader Joes.
I'm Natasha Ho, a trained chef and avid traveler. I've studied culinary traditions from cuisines around the world, and I help food lovers learn how to cook a wide variety of meals that are consistently delicious so they can have more fun, ease and joy in their kitchen.