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Middle Eastern and African Spice Mixes

From Morocco to Pakistan, a wide variety of spice blends create the regional flavors of the Middle Eastern cuisine. Rubbed into meat before stewing, sauteed with vegetables, sprinkled over fish before broiling, these mixes permeate the cuisine.

"Baharat" or "Bahrat" is a Persian name for a group of mixes, any of which may traditionally contain 4, 7, or 9 spices. Families have personal favorites which are made the same year after year and become the essence of "home cooking". Many families have private recipes for their blends. After enjoying Mama Hameeda's Kuwaiti spice and stuffing spice for months, I began collecting and mixing spice blend recipes. Here are a few of the best.

When preparing these blends, measuring is only a suggestion, because the spices themselves can vary in intensity and flavor depending on how old they are or where they came from. Spice merchants create custom blends from herbs and spices freshly roasted and ground.

There are two ways to make these - with whole spices that you grind, or with ground spices. Whole spices give a more powerful flavor. Lightly roasting the whole spices in a dry hot frying pan before grinding gives the very best flavor. Heat the whole spices 3 to 5 minutes, until the scent releases, then cool on a plate.
Arabian Spice
Ras-el Hanout
Yemeni Blend
Ethiopian Berbere HOT!
Moroccan Rub

Arabian Spice

about 3 cups

1/3 cup black pepper (freshly ground is best)
1/3 cup ground coriander seed
1/4 cup ground cinnamon
1/4 cup ground cloves
1/2 cup ground cumin
3 tablespoons ground cardamom
1/4 cup ground nutmeg
1/2 cup paprika (or part cayenne, depending on taste)
1/4 cup turmeric
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 tablespoon allspice
1 tablespoon broken bay leaf, ground
1/4 cup dried limes, ground (loomi)(remove seeds before grinding)

Grind and mix all ingredients after roasting as above; store in a tightly sealed jar.


1/4 cup black peppercorns
1/8 cup coriander seeds
1/8 cup cinnamon bark
1/8 cup cloves
1/4 cup cumin seeds
1 Tablespoon cardamom seeds
1/8 cup ground nutmeg
1/4 cup ground paprika

Grind together the spices except the nutmeg and paprika. Mix the nutmeg and paprika. Stir the two mixes together. Store in airtight container up to six months or in freezer.

Yemeni Spice- Hawayil

3 teaspoons black peppercorns
1 1/2 teaspoons of caraway seeds
1/2 teaspoon of saffron threads
1/2 teaspoon of cardamom seeds
1 teaspoon of turmeric

Using a mortar or food processor, grind all ingredients except for the turmeric. Stir in the turmeric and store in an airtight container.

Berbere Spice Mix

  • 2 teaspoons cumin seed, or powder
  • 1 teaspoon cardamon seeds (shell off the husks), or powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon whole allspice (or ground)
  • 1 teaspoon fenugreek seed (or powder)
  • 1 teaspoon coriander seed (or powder)
  • 8 whole cloves, or ground
  • 1 teaspoon black peppercorns, or freshly ground
  • 5 teaspoons red pepper flakes or crumbled dried red peppers
  • 1 tablespoon grated fresh gingeroot (or 1/2 teaspoon dried)
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons sweet paprika (can use hot)
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Toast all the seeds and whole cloves in a small frying pan for 2 minutes, stirring constantly (open window or turn on the stove vent--it can smoke). Grind the spices in a spice grinder. Or, use ground spices.
Mix in all remaining ingredients. Place in a tightly covered container and refrigerate. This mixture can be used with many combinations of legumes, rice or vegetables.

Moroccan Grilling Blend with Honey

about 3/4 cup

3 tablespoons dried ground orange peel OR zest of three oranges, grated fine
2 tablespoons ground cumin
2 tablespoons ground coriander
2 tablespoons ground ginger
2 tablespoons crushed hot chilis (may use paprika for a milder flavor)
1 tablespoon coarsely ground black pepper
1 tablespoon dried oregano, optional
1/2 tablespoon turmeric
1/2 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1/2 tablespoon sea salt
1/2 tablespoon unpasteurized honey

Use fresh orange peel only if you are going to use up all your spice blend on a big batch of protein. Rub the ingredients together except the honey. Work each 2 tablespoons spice mix into 1/2 tablespoon honey and rub it onto your tofu, chicken, fish, or lamb.

Ras-el Hanout

Makes 1/4 cup

Translates to "top of the shop", "head of the shop" or "best of the shop". This complex spice blend is used in Moroccan cooking, with a similar version in Algeria and a somewhat different one in Tunisia. Spice shops employ experts who concoct the mixture, using up to twenty-seven different spices. In the Sahel of Tunisia, ras al-hanut is usually composed of cinnamon, rose petals, cloves, and black pepper, and may also include cardamom, mace, galangal, nutmeg, allspice, ash berries, ginger, turmeric, nigella (black cumin seed), lavender, orrisroot, cassia, and fennel seeds. This is a simple and mild version.

2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon turmeric
1/2 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 tablespoon freshly ground nutmeg
1/4 tablespoon freshly ground cardamom seed
1/4 tablespoon freshly ground clove

Mix all the ingredients and store in a spice jar. It will keep indefinitely but lose its pungency over time.

Makes a scant 1/3 cup.

AKA za'atar, predominately ground sumac, roasted sesame seeds, and green herbs, Zahtar is used to flavor meats and vegetables, or mixed with olive oil and used as a marinade for olives or as a spread for pita or flatbread- a tangy, slightly sour Middle Eastern replacement for a PBJ! The taste of a za'atar mixture can be herbal, or nutty, or toasty.

Za'atar is both a family of herbs and an herb, Thymbra spicata, with a slight minty tendency,in the marjoram/oregano family. Some are salty flavored and quite rare, some are lemony. Za'atar is NOT sumac. What is sold commercially is often blended with sumac and lightly toasted sesame seeds, but the base of the za'atar blend is za'atar herbs. Marjoram is much milder than the oregano we usually find, Western blends usually use it along with oregano and thyme. In the East, thyme is "Zaatar romi"(roman zaatar), and oregano is "Zaatar ach'dar"(green zaatar) and so forth. Zaatar can also be the name of hyssop or a varied mixture of herbs. The commercial mixes often contains three kinds of zaatar and sumac.

2 teaspoons oregano
2 teaspoons basil
2 tablespoons ground thyme
1 teaspoon whole thyme
2 teaspoons savory
2 teaspoons ground marjoram
1/2 teaspoons whole dry marjoram
1-2 tablespoons sumac berries, crushed (if available - see Middle Eastern deli's)
1/4-1/2 cup unhulled, toasted sesame seeds, ground coarsely
1 1/2 teaspoons salt (or to taste)
1 tablespoon dried ground lemon peel or zest of two lemons, very finely minced

Ideally, this is a little coarse. First grind the sesame seeds and crush the sumac separately. Then crush everything together with a pestle or the back of a spoon, or put it into a zipper plastic baggie, press out the air, seal, and roll over it with a rolling pin or the side of a quart jar until the desired mix and texture is achieved.
While it is fresh, dampen a few tablespoons with olive oil, and add some hummus or crushed chickpeas if you like, to make "dukkah". Spread on pita or flatbread, and bake or broil until hot through. Or work some into the top of fresh bread dough before baking.

Green zahtar variation: Omit sumac and replace with ground and whole thyme or marjoram, fenugreek leaf (exotic flavor) or dried parsley.