Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Harissa = Happiness

What are the odds that on the day before I planned to post something about the “Tabasco of Tunisia,” otherwise known as harissa, there would be a nice little NPR blog on the same subject? Well, there was, and here it is.
A spicy, brilliant red chili paste, harissa has been dubbed sriracha’s (aka rooster sauce) cousin as well as the mustard or ketchup of Africa, served just about everywhere on everything. The blend of red-chili-peppers, olive oil, coriander and sometimes, caraway is actually more far more nuanced than sriracha, infinitely more interesting than Tabasco, and as for ketchup? Meh. No resemblance.
Versions vary widely, of course. Some include mint and others add red bell pepper and tomato. The texture varies, too -- from a smooth paste to a chunkier version – as in Mustapha’s Moroccan Harissa, my favorite, made with dashes of red bell pepper and tomato in addition to the chili peppers. Bottom line, harissa delivers a complex heat – one that resonates rather than just knocking your tastebuds out.
I wish I could say I discovered a love of the fiery condiment while on an excursion on the back of a camel in an exotic setting, but, must admit my introduction was in the First World  setting of Williams Sonoma where the jar of Mustapha’s just looked so pretty I bought one for a gift and one for me. I proceeded to become addicted – not an unusual reaction as far as I can tell.
What to do with harissa:
Mix with mayonnaise, spread on lamb burgers or hamburgers, along with piles of arugula. Or, on a sausage sandwich.
Stir into black bean soup or chile along with mascarpone or crema.
Add to a Bloody Mary, to taste
Mix into egg salad or deviled egg filling, and of course my standard, “on eggs!”
Use to flavor curries, stews, soups
Make this Moroccan style carrot salad I found on Chowhound: 
Simmer slices of carrots in water with a bay leaf. Drain and combine with olive oil and harissa while still warm, then refrigerate. Serve at room temperature, garnished with any of the following: chopped mint, chopped cilantro, olives, feta, chopped preserved lemon
Finally, if you want to make your own, here’s Claudia Roden’s recipe from The New Book of Middle-Eastern Food.
2 ounces dried hot red chili peppers (stems and seeds removed)

4 cloves garlic, peeled

1 teaspoon ground caraway

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1/2 teaspoon salt

extra-virgin olive oil

Soak the chili peppers in water for 30 minutes, until soft. Drain and pound with the garlic, spices, and a little salt with a pestle and mortar, or blend in a food processor, adding just enough oil, by the tablespoon, to make a soft paste. Press into a jar and cover with oil. 

This famous and formidable chili paste goes into many North African, especially Tunisian, dishes. It keeps very well for many weeks in the refrigerator of covered with oil.
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  1. Trying to google and find to store my cans with harissa after opening in the fridge or not. I saw your article.

    While staying with Arab families I was introduced to eating plain bread with olive oil mixed with harissa. In addition you might eat it with plain nature halawa tahinia (perhaps hard to get). To be found in Tunisia. a simple quick but very tasteful and filling breakfast.

    regarding your harissa is happiness. The families motto was also. 'be happy'

    Enjoy writing.

  2. Bart, Thank you for your comments! About storage - definitely refrigerate after opening. Enjoy eating!

  3. Hi Virginia, thank you, before I got your reply I had a call with a friend telling me I should also add a layer of olive oil to better preserve the harissa, I might help you to preserve your harissa even longer, although with your speed of eating this might not be necessary . :)