Harissa is a Tunisian hot chili paste, which is sometimes described as “Tunisia’s main condiment”. Bright red in color, it is served with most meals as a dip and is often used as an ingredient in stews and soups.
It is commonly used to season couscous, or as a rub for meat and vegetables. Tunisia is the world’s largest exporter of prepared harissa, producing 22,000 tons a year. The name “harissa” originates from the Arabic word harasa which means “to break into pieces” or “to pound”.
Chili peppers were imported into Tunisia during the time of Spanish occupation in the 16th century, and harissa has been part of the cuisine for nearly as long. This traditional condiment varies from region to region, with the simplest versions comprised of just chili peppers, garlic, salt and olive oil. Additions such as cumin, lemon juice, coriander, onions and tomato are added into some harissa pastes, and variations from the Saharan regions have a smokey flavor to them. Harissa is a common ingredient in other Middle Eastern cuisines. In Israel, it is a common topping for shawarma and in Morocco, it is used as a condiment for tagines and mixed into dishes.
Chili peppers belong to the family of foods called capsicum, and contain a substance called capsaicin, which gives them their characteristic heat. They are known to fight inflammation and boost immunity. There are many varieties of chili peppers and they vary in shape, size and color. Some of the most popular include jalapeño, cayenne, chipotle and habanero. The origin of chili peppers can be traced to Central and South America, and exported across the world in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Traditional Tunisian harissa is often prepared with hot peppers grown in and around Nabeul and Gabes, coastal cities in the east on Tunisia. These chilies are relatively mild, measuring 40,000-50,000 on the Scoville scale. Traditionally, the peppers used to make harissa are dried as they have a stronger flavor and heat to them than fresh ones.
Tabel (tabil or tawabel), is a spice mixture that is added to harissa for seasoning, and is a common ingredient in dishes in Tunisia and Algeria. The literal translation of “tabel” is “coriander”, but other spices and herbs are found in the mixture, including caraway, dried onion and hot pepper. Variations of this spice mix include cumin, bay leaves, mint and turmeric.
Harissa has a complex flavor to it thanks to the mixture of spices and the heat of the chili peppers, and it can vary from batch to batch depending on the variety of peppers used. Harissa is much more than a hot sauce, it is milder and it adds a unique depth of flavor to dishes it is added to.
It can be a little daunting to make harissa from scratch at home, especially when it is readily available in super stores, but the end result is so much fresher, more colorful and textured than any premade paste you will buy.
Although it is tempting to use a food processor, to get the texture of an authentic harissa, it is best to use a meat grinder or mortar and pestle, using a food processor will result in the paste being too smooth. Harissa can be stored in the fridge for several weeks in an airtight jar, just cover the top of the paste with olive oil to keep it fresh.
- 6 lb dried red peppers (ideally dried under the sun)
- 1 lb coarse salt
- 3 cups vegetable oil
- 1 lb garlic
- 6 oz. tabel (Tunisian spice blend)
- Olive oil (to preserve)
- Meat grinder (with coarse plate)
- Surgical mask
- It is very important to wear gloves, a surgical mask and goggles for all stages of the preparation of this recipe as peppers could burn depending on their intensity.
- Stem and seed the peppers.
- Soak them in a bowl of cold water, immersing them completely, for 45 minutes.
- Change the soaking water twice.
- Drain the peppers in a colander for 1 hour and shake the colander to get rid of their water.
- Squeeze them with both hands to remove as much water as possible.
- Place the peppers on a large dry cloth and place another dry cloth over them.
- Press firmly on it to dry them well.
- Grind the peppers and garlic cloves in small quantities in the meat grinder (coarse plate), and into a large bowl.
- Mix the ground peppers with coarse salt and half of the oil with your hands. Grind the mixture again through the meat grinder.
- Add the remaining oil and the tabel. Mix well by hand and grind the mixture for a third time.
- Mix again by hand.
- Pour the harissa into sterilized glass jars. Pour olive oil on top and close tightly.
- Harissa can be kept for several months in the refrigerator.