Friday, April 22, 2005

Ras el Hanout Redux

A few week ago, now, I once again received some very nice, thoughtful presents for my birthday, but among my favorite were a couple of gifts that focused on Moroccan cuisine: my very own earthenware tagine and Paula Wolfert’s Couscous and Other Good Food From Morocco. (I won’t name the culprit who gave me these gifts, but I’d like to thank her once again.) I’d been wanting a tagine for a few years, but I became quite serious about getting one after Michelle and I went to a Moroccan restaurant named Le Souk in Paris last summer (see "Highlights: Paris"). I had had tagine dishes before, but I had never had a tagine dish like the duck tagine with fresh figs, dried fruit, honey, and almonds that Michelle ordered that evening. As for Couscous and Other Good Food From Morocco, I spent years admiring Paula Wolfert’s 1973 classic back in the days when I was a bookseller, but for some reason I’d never actually acquired it.

This weekend I’m finally going to christen both the tagine and the cookbook, after weeks of contemplating when and how to first put them to use. I think I’m going to start off with one of Wolfert’s chicken tagine recipes, but there’ll be more on this later.

Like all truly great cookbooks, Wolfert’s book not only contains brilliant recipes, it also reads beautifully, situating its passion for food within a broader understanding of cuisine’s place within culture. The opening chapters of her book not only whet the appetite for a whole array of Moroccan delicacies, they also detail the epiphany Wolfert experienced from “[the] moment the Yugoslav freighter touched at Casablanca in 1959.” Wolfert spent the next two years immersing herself in Moroccan culture and developing a deep understanding of Moroccan cuisine and its various traditions. She then spent eight years in Paris obsessing over Morocco, and trying to find ways to get back, before she finally decided to write a cookbook about Moroccan cuisine, taking on the in-depth research that finally led to the publication of her book in 1973.

The opening chapter is a fascinating look into the history and development of Moroccan cuisine, as well as the philosophies that form its foundation. There she discusses everything from “the philosophy of abundance” and the striking similarities between Moroccan and Chinese banquets, to the notion of kimia, the magical power to “multiply food,” to make the most out of very little. In the second chapter, Wolfert takes up the topic of Morocco’s souks and their place within Moroccan culture. It is there that she discusses spices and spice merchants, including “the ten important spices” (cinnamon, cumin, saffron, turmeric, ginger, black pepper, cayenne, paprika, aniseed, and sesame seeds) as well as the “nine secondary aromatics” (allspice, caraway, cloves, coriander seeds, gum Arabic, fenugreek, licorice, honey dates, and orrisroot). It is also there where she launches into a lengthy discussion on the topic of our good friend, Ras el Hanout. Wolfert claims that in her travels across Morocco she came upon accounts of Ras el Hanout blends that consisted of “more than a hundred ingredients,” but the majority of the most lively blends consist of 24 to 28 different herbs, spices, and other aromatics. Her analysis (with the help of a spice merchant friend in New York) of one packet of a blend that she purchased in Fez turns up the following exotic list of ingredients:

Ash berries
Belladonna leaves
Black cumin seeds
Black peppercorns
Cardamom pods
Cassia cinnamon
Ceylon cinnamon
Coriander seed
Cubebe pepper
Earth almonds
Galingale [or Galangal root]
Gouza el asnab
Grains of paradise
Long pepper
Monk’s pepper

You’ll have to pick up Wolfert’s book to get the full details on any of the above ingredients that are unfamiliar to you. The point is: 1) Ras el Hanout is about as heady and complex as cuisine can ever be, and, once again, it provides an ample sense of just how sophisticated Moroccan cuisine can be (Wolfert makes a point of stressing how disappointing so much of the cuisine that passes itself off as “Moroccan” often is); 2) Wolfert displays her impressive talents as a sensualist even within the form of a simple list.

Like I said, this weekend I’m going to give the tagine and one of Wolfert’s recipes a shot. I’ll try and find one that involves Ras el Hanout, too.



Matt K. said...

How big is your tagine? I've always wanted to get one, but they rarely seem big enough to actually handle the recipes in Wolfert's (amazing) cookbook. Or do you use it just for serving?

Also, which tagine did you end up making? Inquiring minds want to know!

aj kinik said...

so, the new tagine is 14" across--it was one of the larger models that was available, apparently--you can check out the recipe we ended up making in our most recent post--we only ended up finishing the dish in the tagine--it was way too big a recipe to fit in the tagine (with all the sauce)--if you cut the recipe in half, and only did one chicken, i'm sure you could actually cook it in a tagine of this size, though--we'll try a recipe that we actually cook in the tagine start to finish soon--it'll give off an amazing flavor, i'm sure