Moroccan Spices: Essential and Secondary Moroccan Spices

When you wander the souks of Morocco, you will be struck by the sheer variety of spices on display. A myriad of reds, yellows and all shades of brown give an example of the great and colourful variety of spices used in Moroccan cooking. In fact, spices have been an integral part of the Moroccan kitchen since the Arabs brought their spices with them on their great sweep across North Africa in the seventh century.

Moroccan Spices: Essential Spices

The eight most important spices for Moroccan cooking are cinnamon, cumin, saffron, paprika, turmeric, black pepper, cayenne pepper, ginger, aniseed and sesame seeds. You should have these spices readily at hand, as they are used over and over again in many recipes.

Cinnamon: Mostly used in stick form, there are two types: Ceylon cinnamon, called dar el cini in Morocco, pale and light in taste; and cassia cinnamon, called karfa in Morocco, dark and strong in taste. Cinnamon is used frequently in Moroccan cooking as a final dusting of soups, tagines, couscous, bastilla, salads and sweets.

Cumin: This is an essential spice in Moroccan food, called kammoon in Morocco. In its seed form it smells like hay, but when ground in a mortar the aroma and taste released is sensational. It is frequently used in minced meat (kefta), to coat roast meats (mechoui) and in fish and chicken dishes.

Saffron: Saffron, called zaafrane in Morocco, is expensive to buy, but thankfully only small quantities are needed as it is potent in both colour and taste. Saffron is used as a basis in a family of Moroccan sauces.

Before pulverising your saffron threads, make them brittle by placing in a plate over boiling water or dry in a warm oven for ten minutes. Pulverise in a mortar and only used a pinch or too. Some recipes will call for saffron water; to prepare this simply soak a ¼ teaspoon of pulverised saffron threads in 4 tablespoons of hot water. This should keep for a week, covered in a refrigerator.

Paprika: Known as felfla hlouwa in Morocco, paprika is the most commonly used of the pepper condiments. It is the basis for virtually all tomato dishes, indispensable for many sauces and also appears in vegetable tagines, salads and kefta.

Paprika doesn’t keep well, so buy in small quantities and keep in a cool and dark place. Make sure you smell and taste before you buy, as poor quality paprika can be coloured with cochenille to give it a bright red colour.

Turmeric: Called quekoum in Morocco, turmeric belongs to the ginger family and has a clean and bitter taste. Often mixed with saffron to give extra colour and flavour, most often for economic reasons – saffron is that expensive.Harira always contains a spoonful.

Black Pepper: Known as elbezar in Morocco. This spice has a coarse taste and is added in many savoury dishes. Add early for the taste to mellow.

Cayenne Pepper: Known as felfla soudaniya or simply felfla in Morocco. A yellow-orange coloured spice used mostly in southern Morocco cooking, where the influence of hotter, spicier African dishes is stronger.

Ginger: Called skinjbir in Morocco. A sweet, peppery spice often seen in Moroccan cooking with black pepper and coarse salt; especially in tagines.

Aniseed: Known as habbt hlawa or nafaa in Morocco. Aniseed has a strong, warm flavour and is used in seed form to flavour Moroccan bread, sweets and milk drinks.

Sesame Seeds: Known in Morocco as jinjelan. Sesame seeds are used in Moroccan breads and desserts, and when toasted as a garnish for some tagines.

Moroccan Spices: Secondary Spices

These flavourings – cloves, allspice, coriander seeds, fenugreek and caraway seeds – are used much less frequently than the essential spices. They are not essential to have unless you’re cooking the recipe that calls for it.

Cloves: Called oud el nouar in Morocco. It is seldom used except in some couscous dishes.

Allspice: A reddish-brown berry with a taste that combines the flavours of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves, callednoioura in Morocco. It is used in some chicken dishes and regional varieties of kefta and bisteeya.

Coriander Seeds: Not to be confused with fresh coriander, used frequently in Moroccan cooking. Coriander seeds, orkesbar, are ground and used as a spice to give a somewhat pungent flavour.

Fenugreek: A dry and yellow seed of the aromatic plant of the same name. It is native to Morocco, where it known as helbah, and favoured by Berbers in making flat bread.

Caraway Seeds: Largely cultivated in Morocco where it is known as karwiya. It is used very infrequently but turns up in the famous harissa sauce.