For hundreds if not thousands of years in the ancient arab world, the roman empire and continental europe spices were the driving force of the economy. While primarily used for preserving and curing meats (and hiding rotting meat) spices also became a large part of medicine of the day. When the land routes to Asian spices were closed due to wars and the price from moroccan merchants were too high European monarchs started searching for water routes to Asian spices. This was the source of funding for Christopher Columbus and many of his contemporaries.
Morocco was the spice capital of the arab world. Spice merchants would have many blends and would custom blend their spices but their very best blend of their best spices was called Ras El Hanout which translates 'head of the shop" or best of the shop. Many spice shop owners both then and now might have as many as 100 different spices in their blend. Yet if you google Ras El Hanout you'll find many blends with only 7 or 8. Many people think of it as curry powder but the more refined versions are far more sublime, subtle and yet complex. As americans we have virtually no history of a spice culture and the dynamic flavor it can add to everyday ordinary food...simple grilled fish, roast chicken, eggs, rice, steamed veggies etc.
As modern medicine would have it many of these spices are in fact extremely healthful.
So my challenge for you is to make your own spice blend and to use it on every thing you eat at home for a week and to see if it doesn't add flavor and value to your day to day cuisine? As a model for your own spice blend I'm including a link to Mourad Lahlou's Ras El Hanout. Mourad is the owner of Aziza, the first Moroccan restaurant in America to receive a Michelin star. He is a native Moroccan and author of a great cookbook New Moroccan.
You'll find some ingredients hard to find and others that you know you don't care for. Make a personal blend and if you like it enough give some to your culinary friends.
This is the first in a series of recipes called "Luxury for Less" —David