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Raz el hanout is a spice blend most closely associated with Tunisia and Morocco, although it is in fact widely used across North Africa. Many stores which carry North African and Middle Eastern ingredients stock raz el hanout, especially if they specialize in spices, and it is also possible to make this complex spice blend at home, for cooks who want to control ingredients for a specifically desired flavor.
The name “raz el hanout” literally means “the top of the shop,” meaning that the spice blend represents the best that the storekeeper has to offer. Traditionally, a storekeeper creates a custom raz el hanout blend and protects the ingredients and the proportions very closely to ensure that it cannot be copied, with customers usually developing a brand loyalty to a specific merchant. Cooks can also customize their own raz el hanout blends, passing down secret recipes to family members.
Ingredients in raz el hanout are quite varied, but they often include some combination of nutmeg, ginger, pepper, rosebuds, anise seed, galangal, cumin, cardamom, chilies, turmeric, cloves, cinnamon, paprika, lavender, cayenne, allspice, mace, kalajeera, ajowan seeds, belladonna, grains of paradise, and orris root. Exotic regional spices may also be included, depending on local availability, and as can be seen from this list, raz el hanout is far from simple.
When a raz el hanout is well made, the blend of spices balances itself out, allowing a multitude of flavors to develop as a dish cooks. This spice blend is especially well suited to stewing, roasting, and slow cooking, as these methods predominate in North Africa. Brief cooking will sometimes inhibit the flavor, allowing one spice to dominate the others.
Like other spices, raz el hanout tastes better the fresher it is. Cooks who want to make their own should make up small batches, and store the spice blend in airtight containers in a cool, dry place. Storebought raz el hanout should be similarly secured. This spice mix should never be upended over a hot cooking pot, both to reduce the risk of using too much, and to prevent steam from getting inside the container and spoiling the spice. After six months, raz el hanout should be discarded, as the flavor will have gone stale.
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