Take Me to the Casbah!


Moroccan spices can send you on a culinary voyage that’s out of this world.

Shades of the casbah. The souk in Casablanca. The exotic aromas of spices.
These images conjure up a picture of Moroccan cooking. What exactly makes this cuisine so enticing?
I believe that the trick is in those spices. “Ras el Hanut” is a much-beloved spice mixture used intensively in Moroccan — as well as in Moroccan-Jewish — cooking. The literal translation is “head of the store.”
Each particular spice merchant has his own secret recipe for his version of this fragrant blend; some versions may contain up to 50 spices. The most popular spices that go into “ras el hanut” are cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, chili, cumin, turmeric, nutmeg, ginger, paprika, saffron and black peppercorns.
Try the version below. Feel free to change and/or substitute to realize your own particular house blend. If you don’t have the whole spices or seeds on hand, you may, of course, use already ground ones; but, believe me, the flavor of the whole seed is worth the extra effort.
Ras el Hanut
2 tsps. coriander seeds
1 tsp. black peppercorns
1 tsp. allspice berries
1⁄2 tsp. cloves
2 tsps. ground ginger
1 and 1⁄2 tsps. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. ground nutmeg
Grind coriander seeds, peppercorns, allspice berries and cloves in a coffee grinder (or mortar and pestle, if you have the strength). Combine with remaining ingredients. Store in an airtight container.
Meat-Filled Moroccan Pastilles/Bastilla
25 frozen egg roll wrappers
Filling Ingredients:
2 bay leaves
2 quarts water
1 and 1⁄2 lbs. ground beef or chicken
2 sliced onions
4 cloves garlic
fresh coriander
1 jalapeño pepper
3 Tbsps. vinegar
1 level Tbsp. ras el hanut
1 tsp. salt
pepper to taste
oil for deep frying
Remove the egg-roll wrappers from the freezer about half an hour before beginning.
Place water and bay leaves in a large pot. Bring to a boil. Divide ground beef into two balls and add to water. Cook just under boiling point for about half an hour.
Remove meat from pot and set aside to cool. Grind in a food processor with remaining filling ingredients.
Place 1 tablespoon of the mixture on the bottom of a wrapper and roll up like a jelly roll. “Glue” with a bit of flour and water.
Place prepared cigars in the freezer for 40 minutes.
Heat oil for deep frying in a medium pot. Fry pastilles until golden. Drain on absorbent paper.
Makes 25.
Moroccan Fish Balls
Fish Balls Ingredients:
1 and 1⁄2 lbs. skinless fish fillets (haddock, grouper or tilapia)
1 small onion, grated
1 egg
1⁄3 cup fine bread crumbs
2 tsps. ground coriander
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. turmeric
1 tsp. finely ground ginger
1⁄8 tsp. cayenne pepper (or more to taste)
1⁄2 tsp. kosher salt
1⁄2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
2 Tbsps. minced fresh cilantro
additional parsley and/or cilantro, finely chopped, for garnish
Tomato Sauce Ingredients:
1 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 can (14.5 oz.) diced tomatoes
2 Tbsps. tomato paste
1 and 1⁄2 tsps. sugar
1 tsp. kosher salt
2 cups water
Chop the fish in food processor. Transfer to a large bowl and mix in ingredients through cil­an­tro. Cover and refrigerate while you make the sauce.
To make the sauce: Heat the oil in a 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and cook for 1 to 2 minutes. Add remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil, lower heat to simmer and cook for 15 minutes.
Roll fish mixture into balls. Place into the sauce one at a time and add more water if needed just to cover the balls. Simmer for 20 to 25 minutes or until firm, turning each ball over in the middle.
Serve hot, cold or at room temperature. Garnish with additional parsley and/or cilantro.
Makes approximately 20 balls.
Moroccan Anise-Sesame Seed Bread
A traditional Moroccan recipe for a classic loaf of yeasted bread flavored with anise and sesame seeds. 
1 Tbsp. active dried yeast 
2 cups warm water (divided)
1 tsp. sugar (or honey) 
3 Tbsps. vegetable oil 
2 and 1⁄2 tsps. anise seeds 
5 Tbsps. sesame seeds (divided)
2 Tbsps. sea salt 
4-5 cups flour, divided
1 egg white, beaten 
1 tsp. water 
Dissolve the yeast in 1⁄2 cup of the warm water then stir in the sugar (or honey) until dissolved. Set aside for 5 to 7 minutes until foamy. 
Combine the yeast mixture in a bowl with the remaining water, oil, anise seeds, 2 tablespoons sesame seed, salt and 11⁄2 cups flour. Gradually stir in the remaining flour, a half-cup at a time until the mixture holds together as a dough. 
Turn the dough out onto a lightly-floured work surface then knead for about 10 minutes, or until smooth and elastic. Dough will be heavy.
Transfer to a greased bowl, turning to coat, then cover loosely and set aside in a warm place to rise for about an hour and a half, or until doubled in volume. 
Punch down dough and divide in half. Shape each piece into a ball, cover with plastic wrap and set aside to rest for 10 minutes. 
Sprinkle a large baking tray with semolina or cornmeal then flatten each ball of dough into a round about 6 inches in diameter. Cover with foil and set aside to rise for 40 minutes. 
Preheat oven to 350˚.
Brush the tops of each loaf with egg white. Lightly sprinkle the tops with sesame seeds. Bake for about 30 minutes or until golden brown and hollow sounding when tapped on its base (best to test with oven temperature probe: should read 180˚ to 190˚.) Transfer to a wire rack to cool.
Makes 2 small loaves.
Rivka Tal is a former Minne­sotan who has lived in Jerusalem for the past 46 years. She is a food writer and translator. Email her at: [email protected]


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