My Ode to Harissa

Harissa in a jar. Photo by Flickr/jules:stonesoup

Put down the sriracha. There’s a new condiment in town. And just like the popular spicy “rooster sauce” everyone went crazy for over a few years ago, this one adds depth, piquancy and spice to anything you put it on.

It’s called harissa, and I’m a little in love with it.

I don’t know when I first heard of or tasted the thick North African sauce–perhaps in the Moroccan restaurant in Bristol, England where I used to go with friends, despite its unfortunate name, Rock the Casbah, or maybe here in Charlotte at my favorite Ethiopian restaurant, Meskerem, on Kings Drive, that serves tibs wat, or beef sauteed in berbere, a spice with a taste somewhat similar to harissa.

So what the heck is this harissa stuff? The first thing you notice about the spiced sauce is its color: bright, rich crimson. Just as an onomatopoeia sounds like its meaning, so harissa looks like its own taste. Earthy, foreign, roasted, pungent, smoky. It is a condiment with a depth of flavor and spice. I’m pretty sure I could eat it on anything, from scrambled eggs to grilled fish to any vegetable.

I made it for the first time myself just a few weeks ago. My friend Lisa was coming over for dinner, and I had decided to cook something “North African-y,” even if I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant. Something with cous cous and lemon and mint, right? Harissa! I cried, Archimedes-style, when I came upon the recipe. Using my own spice-biases, I tweaked the recipe a bit, and couldn’t believe how well it turned out. I served it over sauteed chickpeas and spinach, and it was the exact taste I had been trying to create.

In this Internet age, anything, of course, is available online, so you can certainly purchase a wide variety of harissas from any number of international food sites.  It comes canned, bottled, even “tubed.”  But really, when it’s this easy and fun to make, there’s really no need to squeeze it–or anything you’re going to eat, really–from a tube.

Harissa in a tube. Photo by Flickr/fred_v

Now, this recipe won’t have you delving into the gorgeous chaos of the Asian market at Tryon and Sugar Creek or even visiting one of the many African food shops around town. I was really surprised to find that everything I needed to make harissa was available at my neighborhood Harris Teeter. I even got to use my oft-neglected mortar and pestle, though you can use a spice grinder if you prefer.

The batch for the recipe below made about a cup and a half, and I’m told that it will last for weeks well-sealed in the refrigerator. And don’t despair if you open the container next week and find a thin layer of oil on top.  It separates when it sits, but all you have to do it give it a good stir, and you’re right back to the key to your very own “North African-y” meal.

Ingredients for harissa. Dried rosebuds are used in some harissa pastes. Photo by Flickr/Baha'i Views

This recipe is adapted from Saveur’s.

  • 8 dried guajillo chiles
  • 8 dried New Mexico chiles
  • 1⁄2 ts caraway seeds
  • 1⁄4 ts coriander seeds
  • 1⁄4 ts cumin seeds
  • 3 TB extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 1⁄2 tsp. salt
  • 5 garlic cloves
  • juice of small lemon

1. Put chiles into a medium bowl, cover with boiling water, and let sit until softened, about 15-20 minutes. Heat caraway, coriander, and cumin in a skillet over medium heat. Toast spices, swirling skillet constantly, until very fragrant, about 4 minutes. Transfer spices to a grinder and grind to a fine powder. Set aside.

2. Drain chiles and transfer to the bowl of a food processor with the ground spices, olive oil, salt, garlic, and lemon juice. Purée, stopping occasionally to scrape down the sides of the bowl, until the paste is very smooth.

Harissa. Photo by Flickr/gtrwndr87


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