This spicy condiment has been prepared in the Maghreb region of Africa for much longer than the current political borders that define its homeland. Specifically, Tunisian cuisine highlights the use of harissa as an ingredient rather than a sauce to finish a dish. Traditional harissa varies from house to house as the recipe is passed down from parent to child, evolving with each generation’s preferences for flavors, but the main ingredients are roasted peppers and chilies of varying hotness, spices, and oil.
While peppers are the main ingredient of this fiery paste, they are not native to North Africa. In fact, harissa is a nod to the cultural influences that passed through their ports. The peppers came from North America through Columbus’s exploration of the new world. The spices came from India as trade routes passed by their coast. The oil, traditionally olive, came from their own local harvest.
10 jalapeños, roasted, peeled, and seeded
2 red peppers, roasted, peeled, and seeded
1 tbsp whole cumin seeds, toasted and ground
1 tsp granulated garlic
3 Tbsp Paprika
3/4 cup Olive oil
3 tbsp Lemon juice
Salt, as needed
Toss all peppers with 1 tablespoon of oil, a pinch of salt, and a pinch of pepper. Lay out on aluminum covered sheet pan. Put under broiler until just starting to burn. Flip peppers so they are roasted consistently on all sides. Remove from oven, wrap aluminum around the peppers so they will steam to soften (This is key for peeling skin off). Once soft, about 5 minutes of steaming, peel skin and discard. Slice peppers in half, remove ribs and seeds.
Toasting spices goes a long way to enhance flavors. The heat brings the oils to the surface, which adds nuttiness and complexity. In a frying pan, toss spices over high heat just until starting to smoke. Remove from heat. Keep tossing, as the pan is hot and could burn the spices. Once cool, grind in spice grinder. We have a dedicated coffee grinder we use only for spices.
Add all ingredients but oil to blender. Blend until paste consistency. Slowly drizzle in oil as blender is running. Store in pint jar for up to 3 weeks. We use it for many things: a condiment on burgers, salad dressing, heating up Mexican food, rounding out Indian food, mixed with ranch, mixed into couscous and quinoa, and the list could go on.
If you make harissa, what spices do you use? I have found contradictory reports of black cumin being the only qualifier for “real” harissa, and other sources claim it has to have caraway. Experiment with each, and let us know what you think.