Essaouira: the Spice Souk

traditional spice shop

traditional spice shop

The spice shelf in your average British supermarket has come a long way over the last 10 years, but there’s nothing like buying exotic spices in exotic countries (for a fraction of the price). Last time I was in Morocco, I brought back spices for festive baking and Christmas presents.

Spice shopping in Morocco is not a quick in-and-out job. It’s a whole conversation. I buy my spices from a guy called Khalid – his dad owns several shops in the spice souk in Essoauira. He has a good selection, his prices are fair, and the chat is good. And he’ll take the time to explain the difference between ‘vrai’ (real) saffron and ‘faux’ (false – some other kind of plant life with a fleeting, less intense colour – and a completely different flavour, no doubt).

The shopping is always accompanied by a cup or three of Royal Tea – mint tea with the addition of a bit of this and a bit of that from various jars in the shop, including dried verbena, dried rose buds, cinnamon stick, juniper berries, cardamom, star anise…. It’s not a very exact recipe.

I love cooking and Moroccan tajines are a great one-pot meal. Here’s a favourite veggie recipe of mine using some of the spices I bought in Essouira.

Butternut squash and chickpea tajine

the spice souk

the spice souk


1 tin of cooked chickpeas
2 tomatoes (or half a tin)
600g squash (you can substitute sweet potato or a combination of both), diced (large pieces)
3 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
½ teasp ground cumin
½ teasp ground turmeric (or use saffron)
¼ teasp cayenne paper or harissa (or use dried chillies)
1 teasp paprika
3 teasp tomato puree
½ teasp caster sugar
1 tbsp chopped flat leaf parsley
2 tbsp chopped coriander
Salt and pepper


1. Heat the oil in a large pan and fry the onion until softened over a medium heat. Add the garlic and cook for a few seconds before adding the dried spices. Stir to release the aromas. Add the tomato puree and stir. Lower the heat. Halve the tomatoes around their circumference and grate the flesh into the pan, discarding the skins (or just add the tinned tomatoes).

2. Add the pumpkin and chickpeas. If necessary, add a little water (or, ideally, vegetable stock) to just cover the contents. Add half of the herbs and season. Stir well.
Cover and simmer for about 20 minutes until the pumpkin is tender but not falling apart. If you need to thicken the stew, take off the lid and reduce towards the end of the cooking time.

3. Check the seasoning and add the sugar if necessary. Sprinkle with the remaining chopped herbs to serve. Eat with chunks of crusty bread or baguette for dunking.

4. I like to make a sweeter tajine by adding cinnamon and sometimes sultanas or raisins. This is also a good way to re-balance if you’ve been heavy-handed with the cumin (which can be very bitter). A sweeter tajine tastes great with a fiery harissa paste, which brings back the savoury character of the dish as you eat it. You can experiment with other vegetables – root vegetables work well; courgettes are nice but bear in mind they need less time to cook – or other pulses, such as green or puy lentils. Bismillah!

Let me know if you try the recipe!

This post was first published at on December 22, 2011

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