Many people believe that civilization got its start in the Mediterranean. With civilization came culture, and with culture came cuisine.
Take a tour of Mediterranean spices from Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, and Turkey, and learn how both climate and culture have influenced the seasonings used in these regional cuisines.
A Tour of Mediterranean Spices
The Moroccan spice mix known as ras el hanout—“top of the shop”—gets its name from the image of a spice merchant selling his best wares to impress a customer. Authentic versions of ras el hanout may contain as many as 30 different spices, some of which, such as belladonna, might be considered poisonous.
Harissa is a chile pepper paste that comes from North Africa, around Tunisia. At about the same time that Columbus was making his way to America and bringing chiles home, the Spaniards won their independence from the Moors, and there was an exodus of people from Spain to Tunisia, bringing with them the newly discovered chiles. Harissa contains garlic, lemon, and caraway.
Tabil (meaning “spice”) is also from Tunisia. This mixture contains turmeric, giving it a yellow color, and numerous other exotic spices that are ordinarily found in curry powder. In fact, you could probably use curry powder as a substitute for tabil.
In both Morocco and Tunisia, we find a vinaigrette known as charmoula. This all-purpose marinade and dressing contains parsley, cilantro, paprika, and cumin. It’s often used to marinate fish or lamb, and it’s used in vegetable salads. One recipe for a tiered salad calls for raw and cooked vegetables dressed with charmoula and then stacked on top of each other: cucumber, tomatoes, onions, beets, potatoes, peppers, and so on.
The Egyptian spice mixture called dukkah is made with cumin, pepper, hazelnuts, and sesame seeds, while za’atar, a mixture used for similar purposes as dukkah, is made with wild thyme, sesame, and sumac.
Finally, baharat is a Turkish mixture containing 8 to 10 spices; it’s often used on lamb, either roasted on a spit or grilled as kebabs.
Learn more about Mediterranean Spices—Exotic Blends
Some Notes About Egyptian Spices
- In a country that has religious prohibitions against the consumption of alcohol, you won’t find vinegar because alcohol is a precursor to vinegar. Finding ways to make food spicy and sour is, thus, a challenge.
- Egyptian and eastern Mediterranean cooks use the spice sumac to make foods sour in the absence of vinegar and in the absence of lemon juice, because lemons are a seasonal crop.
- In Egypt, people dip pieces of bread first into olive oil and then into either dukkah or za’atar as part of a meal.
Try Hosting a Mediterranean Spice Themed Dinner!
One way to create a fun party is to make various types of lamb kebabs using Mediterranean spices and have your guests sample the variations.
Try Spanish lamb kebabs spiced with saffron, garlic, Spanish paprika, and cayenne. These kebabs are a throwback to the time when the Moors occupied Spain and brought their appreciation of exotic spices with them.
You might also make Italian kebabs, skewered on rosemary and seasoned with black pepper and garlic. Greek kebabs could be seasoned with dill, garlic, lemon, and black pepper and anointed with olive oil.
Finally, a Turkish variation would, of course, be seasoned with baharat, which contains cinnamon, nutmeg, cumin, and the type of ingredients we find in pickling spice: bay leaf, allspice, cloves, coriander seeds, and mustard seeds.
The meal is complete, serve mint tea as it’s made in Tunisia: heavily steeped and sweetened, with a few toasted pine nuts floating on top.
A note about chopping mint: If you chop mint too aggressively, it will turn black. Try to gather the leaves together and cut through the stack just one time. Slice the mint into ribbons (a chiffonade) to ensure that it holds its green color.
Learn more about India—Heart of the Spice World
Make Your Own Mediterranean Spice Blends With These Easy Recipes
This is a transcript from the video series The Everyday Gourmet: Essential Secrets of Spices in Cooking. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
Making Ras el Hanout from Exotic Mediterranean Spices
- 3 tsp black peppercorns
- 2 tsp powdered ginger
- 2 tsp powdered cumin
- 2 tsp powdered cinnamon
- 2 tsp powdered coriander
- 1/2 tsp powdered nutmeg
- 1/2 tsp hot red pepper
- 8 cardamom seeds
- 8 cloves
Combine all ingredients and grind using a mortar and pestle
- 2 tbs ground coriander seeds
- 2 tsp ground caraway seeds
- 1/4 tsp garlic powder
- 1/2 tsp ground red pepper
- 1/4 tsp crushed fennel seed
- 1/4 tsp crushed anise seed
- 1/4 tsp ground cumin
- 1/4 tsp ground turmeric
- 1/2 tsp ground black pepper
Combine ingredients and store in a sealed jar.
- 1 cup sesame seeds
- 1 3/4 cup coriander seeds
- 2/3 cup hazelnuts, blanched and skinned
- 1/2 cup cumin seeds
- 1 tsp sea salt
- 1/2 tsp ground black pepper
Toast the nuts and seeds in the oven or a dry pan; grind together with salt and pepper.
- 1/4 cup sumac
- 2 tbs thyme
- 1 tbs sesame seeds, roasted
- 2 tbs marjoram
- 2 tbs oregano
- 1 tsp coarse salt
Grind the sesame seeds with a mortar and pestle; combine with other ingredients.
Learn more about Treasured Spices in Northern Europe
- 1 1/2 tsp dried winter savory
- 1 tbs pickling spice
- 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
- 1/2 tsp mint leaves, dried and crumbled
- 1/2 tsp ground cumin
- 1 tsp ground black pepper
Combine all ingredients and grind finely; store in a sealed jar.
- 1 clove garlic, peeled
- 2 dried New Mexico peppers stemmed, seeded, softened in warm water, and squeezed dry
- 1 dried tomato slice softened in warm water and squeezed dry
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp Tunisian tabil
- 1⁄8 tsp ground caraway
- Olive oil as needed
- Lemon juice as needed
Grind ingredients into a paste.