Bahārāt, berbere, dukkah, harissa, ras-el-hanout and za'atar: you're probably familiar with the names of these well-known spice blends which bring an irresistible touch of African and Middle Eastern flavours to any plate. But can you name the individual spices in each blend?
Let’s find out which spices and herbs are comprised in each blend, how they are used in local culinary traditions and how they are being interpreted by some of today’s most acclaimed chefs.
Origin: Middle East. Flavour: sweet and spicy.
Bahārāt (which simply means "spices" in Arabic) is a typical blend of Middle Eastern cuisines in general and especially those of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Palestine. The traditional mix calls for cumin, caraway, cardamom, black pepper, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, paprika and allspice. However, each region has its own particular version: in Turkey, for instance, this blend includes mint, in Tunisia black pepper, cinnamon and dried rose petals, while in the Persian Gulf, dried lime and saffron are added to make it a more complex blend.
How is it used? Usually to marinate and aromatise meats (lamb, chicken, beef, fish), in soups and dishes made from pulses and vegetables.
Kevan Vetter, McCormick&Co’s executive chef, uses it in chicken dishes, but also to add flavour to soups and tomato sauces. Selin Kiazim, the chef of the Turkish-Cypriot restaurant Oklava located in London’s Old Street, celebrates its marriage with sepia and Salicornia. Anna Hansen of the London-based restaurant The Modern Pantry has chosen to use it with marinated lamb and lemon.
Origin: Horn of Africa. Flavour: bitter-spicy.
Indicated in the Flavor Forecast by McCormick&Co as being one of the hottest trends of 2018, berberé is the quintessential spice blend of Eritrea, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Somalia. This mix – which varies from one recipe book to another – requires red chilli pepper, ginger, cloves, coriander, allspice, rue, ajowan (whose aroma and taste recall those of thyme), fenugreek, cinnamon, nutmeg, black pepper, long pepper, garlic or onion.
Among top chefs, one of the most illustrious enthusiasts of berberé spice blend is Marcus Samuelsson who, in his Harlem restaurants (the Red Rooster and the Streetbird), is equally capable of presenting it on simple toast with ricotta and with a warm beef tartar or as a glaze for roast lamb. He even goes further than that: how would you react to a fruit salad combining pineapple, salt and berberé fermented honey.
Origin: Egypt. Flavour: hazelnut.
Also known as dukka or duqqa, this typical blend of Egyptian cuisine containing cumin, coriander, sesame, thyme, mint and pepper with the addition of dried fruit (mainly hazelnuts) and toasted seeds (such as pumpkin seeds). It is used to "bread coat" lamb, fish, chicken and even tofu, to flavour roast vegetables, feta, pasta, fresh fruit and azzimo bread (the ingredients are first dipped in olive oil and then coated with the spice mix).
So, how do chefs use it? Acclaimed chef Alon Shaya puts this complex blend to good use to spice up his grilled okra, while Ana Sortun of the Oleana, Sarma and Sofra restaurants in Boston enhances its bouquet equally well with vegetables (broccoli or carrots) or in desserts (dukkah macarons, for instance) or to give an unusual twist to some very special doughnuts.
Curtis Stone of Maude restaurant uses this spice blend in salads (Asparagus salad with rocket, dukkah, and labneh) and fish dishes (Dukkah-spiced salmon with baby carrots and yoghurt).
Origin: North Africa. Flavour: midway between hot and spicy.
Particularly associated with Tunisia, harissa is also used widely in Libya, Morocco and Algeria. The addition of vegetable oils (olive oil for instance) turns the pounded spices into a thick creamy paste: most recipes for its preparation contemplate the mixing of various types of chilli pepper (such as chilli, serrano and baklouti) with garlic paste, coriander seeds, saffron, rose petals and cumin. Harissa plays a protagonist role in Tunisian cuisine: it is frequently used with goat meat or lamb, in fish stews with vegetable, in couscous or in lablabi, a particular type of chick pea soup normally eaten at breakfast.
This combination of grains and vegetables has been used in fine dining salads like the Bulgur, fresh harissa, peppers and cucumber signed by Alain Ducasse. Marcus Wareing uses it in his Harissa-glazed aubergines with coconut yogurt, roasted peanuts and coriander. This spice mix is the protagonist of the Lamb shoulder confit with rose petal harissa by Jonathan MacDonald of the Ox and Finch in Glasgow.
Origin: North Africa. Flavour: pungent.
Widely used in Morocco, this blend (which may even contain as many as twelve or more ingredients) varies somewhat from one recipe to another and every family, storekeeper or producer jealously guards its own recipe. Its name literally means "head of the shop" and indicates the best the grocer has to offer in the way of a spice mix.
Give or take an ingredient or two, it can contain: cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, coriander, mace, hot and mild paprika, cumin, nutmeg, turmeric and black pepper; it may even be sold with dried rosebuds, galangal, aniseed or fennel seeds, sorbus, tiger nut (also known as chufa), grains of paradise (or Guinea pepper), orris root, agnus castus or cubeb (also called Java pepper).
What about the chefs? Both Tom Kerridge, owner of the two Michelin starred The Hands and Flowers of Marlow (in Buckinghamshire), and the equally illustrious starred chef Ramon Freixa of the Hotel Único in Madrid have chosen to exploit its variegated notes: the former with his devil’s chicken and the latter in a dish of lamb shoulder and Iberian pork with shoots.
Heston Blumenthal uses it in his Slow-cooked lamb shank and giant couscous salad, while the duo Beverly Kim-Johnny Clark of the Parachute restaurant in Chicago bring the sweet perfume of North African ras-el-hanut to their emerald disc of Chopped broccoli conceals dates and pistachios.
Origin: Middle East. Flavour: assertive and grassy with notes of hazelnut.
Widely used throughout the Middle East, this blend of spices and herbs is typically associated with Levantine cuisine. The most popular recipe is from Lebanon and combines thyme, sesame seeds and dried sumac berries (with a fruity astringent flavour); neither is it uncommon for this blend to include marjoram and oregano. Traditionally sprinkled on azzimo bread, used dry or mixed with olive oil, it is widely adopted to flavour red and white meats, fish and grilled vegetables, as well as sauces and seasonings such as hummus, baba ghanush (also known as "eggplant caviar") or tzatziki.
In Rome, for instance, in the Testaccio district, Za'atar restaurant was inaugurated in May 2017, as the first restaurant of Middle Eastern haute cuisine, offering a menu of Lebanese, Israeli, Greek, Moroccan and Persian dishes, comprising Roast chicken with an outer crust of Za’atar, grilled tomatoes and lemon confit.