Harissa is a North African chilli paste or sauce (depending on your viewpoint), earthy and smoky in flavour. At its very basic, it has chillies, garlic, salt, olive oil and lemon juice and very frequently, also cumin, coriander and caraway seeds. Every North African family will have its own recipe, that is if they bother making it at all, because here in Morocco, fresh Harissa is so easily available everywhere, just like freshly mixed Ras El Hanout. It’s different back in the UK, which is why I thought it would be fun to do a post on how to make Harissa at home, because whatever you make is always going to be better than the shop bought version in jars. Right?
Besides the freshness, another advantage to making stuff from scratch at home is that it’ll always be made to suit your tastes. I love my chilli condiments medium hot, not crazy hot (despite my penchant for growing some of the world’s hottest chillies every summer), because I love to be able to savour the multiple sensations of flavours without my mouth or tummy burning off. Know what I mean?
How to use Harissa
Harissa is actually a Tunisian invention but you will find it all across North Africa, from Morocco to Libya, with so many possibilities for its uses: as a table condiment, a cooking ingredient and of course, it makes a great marinade for grilling, roasting and barbecuing, whether on its own or added to something else. Here in Morocco, it is a popular ingredient in the much loved North African sausages called Merguez. Guess what? Yep, next recipe, as I made them for dinner after making the Harissa for this post. That’s what you see in the background in the image above!
I use it for all manner of cooking and serving whether to add depth/bite to soups and stews, to pasta and as a great canapé topping. Our fridge is a veritable “dispensary” of all sorts of chilli condiments or chilli sauces; and you’ll find Harissa in there, right along with Sambal Belacan, Sambal Ijo, Sambal Oelek and various Nam Priks (Thai Chilli condiments). I cannot have a meal without some form of chilli. As much as I love black pepper, it’s just not the same! Have you ever tried Harissa mayo? Oh man, you just have to!
As Harissa is a chilli sauce, it is meant to be hot. However, as mentioned above, I prefer to go down the middle road, so with that in mind for my Harissa recipe, I go for a combination of mild (for the fruity chilli flavour), hot (for the err, heat), fresh, dried and smoky (for the depth). All red. So, examples of what I might use, but not all at the same time:
- fresh jalapeños (mild)
- fresh Thai (hot) or Scotch Bonnets (hot)
- dried Kashmiri chillies (mild) – image above, the longer chillies
- sichuan chillies (hot) – image above, left, the shorter chillies
- anchos for depth and flavour, anchos are dried poblanos
- chipotle, dried jalapeños, also for depth and flavour
Mix and match your chillies and see what you like best but for a start, you can follow the recipe I’ve given below.
Now you can keep your Harissa plain and simple, in its basic form, with or without the dried spices or you can jazz it up a little by adding different flavours. Some of my favourite flavours for making different types of Harissa, especially at Christmas time, as edible gifts:
- preserved lemons (image above) – adds a wonderful tangy and sour dimension to your Harissa. Use a quarter of the preserved lemon peel, do not use the pulp, it’s bitter.
- dries edible rose petals (image below) – gives a hint of musk and sweetness. Use about 1 tablespoon of dried petals, grind them to a powder with the dried spices.
- sundried tomatoes (or paste) – another layer of flavour. One sundried tomato, soaked in hot water for 20 minutes, then blitzed with the other ingredients OR 1 teaspoon of sundried tomato paste.
Convinced yet? You can see how easy it is to make Harissa at home, so next time you have some spare time, go make a small batch for yourself! And if you love your chilli, then be sure to check out the following:
Harissa, a North African Chilli Paste
Harissa is the ubiquitous chilli condiment found all across North Africa.
- 10 dried red chilli peppers (heat level, your choice)
- 1 large ancho chilli
- 2 fresh red chillies of your choice, I like plain old jalapeños
- 1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander seeds
- 1/2 teaspoon ground caraway seeds
- 2 medium cloves garlic
- 1 tsp salt, or to taste
- juice of half a lemon
- 3 tbsp EV olive oil plus more to "seal"
- Using a pair of kitchen scissors, cut the dried chillies in half or thirds.
- Soak them all together in a bowl of hot water for 20 minutes.
- In the meantime, dry fry the cumin, coriander and caraway seeds on medium heat for about 2 minutes until fragrant. Don't let them burn.
- Drain the chillies. If you discard the seeds, your harissa will be less spicy.
- Grind the spices in a coffee or spice mill until finely ground.
- Place the chillies, garlic, salt, lemon juice and olive oil in a food chopper and blitz to a fine paste, scraping down the sides if necessary.
- Add the ground spices, and blitz to mix.
- Store in a sterilized jar , top with a thin layer of olive oil and store in the fridge.
- Use as you want, it should last for 2-3 weeks in the fridge.