What Is Harissa? Here's Everything You Need to Know About This Spicy North African Condiment
If you're new to harissa, you're in for a real treat. The condiment is wonderfully spicy, smoky, and packed with rich, deep flavors. It's also extremely versatile, as it pairs well with sandwiches, rice dishes, and even plain olive oil. Read on to learn all about harissa, plus some of the many ways to use it in your own kitchen.
What Is Harissa?
Harissa is a chile pepper paste. It's traditionally used in North Africa—including Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria—and is delightfully fiery and flavorful. Typically, harissa features a base of hot and sweet red peppers that have been roasted or grilled, explains Christine Sahadi Whelan, author of Flavors of the Sun ($35, chroniclebooks.com) and co-owner of Sahadi's, a legendary Middle Eastern grocery store in Brooklyn. It also consists of whole spices (like caraway, cumin, and coriander seeds) that are cracked and toasted, along with fresh garlic, sea salt, vinegar, and high-quality extra virgin olive oil, says Whelan. From there, different ingredients—like lemon juice or rose petals—can be added to create tasty variations.
How to Make Harissa Paste
You can find harissa in tubes and jars in stores, the condiment is easy to make at home. According to Whelan, the first step is to roast or grill equal amounts of hot and sweet red peppers. (Some recipes call for dried peppers, which may be useful if you're in a rush.) Next, toast your whole spices in a skillet without oil. Add the peppers, toasted spices, and remaining ingredients to a food processor, then pulse until it develops your desired texture. If you don't have a food processor, you can pound the dried peppers and toasted seeds in a mortar, as we did in this recipe for harissa, then mix in the olive oil. Finally, "add salt [then] taste and adjust if necessary," says Whelan. Store the paste in a sealed, air-tight jar in the refrigerator for up to four weeks (unless, of course, you use all of it before then).
Harissa Paste Versus Harissa Powder
Harissa powder is like harissa paste but without the liquid ingredients. It often consists of dried peppers, toasted whole spices, garlic powder, and salt, which are pulsed in a food processor until the peppers break down into flakes and the mixture turns into a powder. The flavor profile of harissa powder is similar to the paste, says Whelan, but it offers different culinary uses. For example, according to Whelan, you can add harissa powder to extra virgin olive oil for a marinade, use it to season grilled fish, mix it into salad dressings for extra zing, or sprinkle it on top of a baked potato with sour cream.
How to Use Harissa
"Harissa is traditionally used with couscous dishes, in chicken and lamb sandwiches, or [in] bowls with rice and fresh vegetables," explains Whelan. However, the condiment works well with many recipes—so much so that Whelan's restaurant, Sahadi's, offers harissa on all their sandwiches and bowls. If you're still unsure how to use harissa at home, Whelan notes that it pairs well with any dish that could benefit from hot sauce. "It's a little more exotic in flavor than commonly used hot sauces, [so it adds] a little extra pizzazz," she says. Try adding a teaspoon or two to your next soup, as we did in this creamy bell pepper, yogurt, and harissa soup. One of Whelan's favorite ways to use harissa is with eggs; use it with our baked eggs or sautéed spinach with poached eggs for a flavorful morning meal. Or if you're craving a simple vegetable side dish, make our harissa-roasted green beans or roasted acorn squash with harissa glaze.