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What Is Harissa?
Harissa is a spicy chile pepper paste used in Middle Eastern and North African cuisine. The word harissa comes from the Arabic harasa, which means “to crush or pound” and refers to the way the paste is made—by grinding chiles together with olive oil, garlic, salt, and spices like coriander and caraway. Harissa is a staple condiment in Tunisia and Morocco, where it is often homemade.
6 Essential Harissa Ingredients
Harissa ingredients vary according to family recipes, but there are a few constants:
- Chile peppers: In North Africa and the Middle East, harissa is typically made by roasting local red pepper varieties—such as Tunisian baklouti peppers—and pounding them into a paste. Since those varieties can be difficult to find in grocery stores in the United States, most recipes use a combination of mild roasted red bell peppers and rehydrated hot Mexican chiles. You can use almost any kind of fresh red pepper in harissa, but be prepared for varying levels of spice.
- Spices: Coriander, caraway, and cumin are traditional harissa spices, but many recipes include smoked paprika for a roasted flavor and red color. If your harissa paste doesn’t turn out as spicy as you’d like, add a little cayenne pepper or another hot chile powder.
- Olive oil: Extra virgin olive oil is the glue that holds a good harissa paste together.
- Garlic: Garlic is a common flavoring in harissa paste. You can add it in raw, but roasting it beforehand will give it a deeper flavor.
- Salt: Salt is an essential harissa ingredient. When making harissa, adjust the amount of salt to taste.
- Acid. Acid, in the form of lemon juice or vinegar, rounds out harissa’s flavor. Compared to other hot sauces, harissa is fairly low in acid, but you’ll still want enough to add some acidic brightness. While it isn’t a traditional ingredient, tomato paste can add an extra hit of acid and umami that also gives harissa a brighter red color.
8 Ways to Use Harissa in Your Cooking
North Africans use harissa as an everyday condiment like ketchup or hot sauce, serving the chile paste alongside grilled meats, Moroccan tagines, bread, and more. Harissa works well in a variety of preparations:
- As a marinade: Try marinating chicken overnight in a blend of harissa, honey, white wine, lemon juice, salt, and pepper and then roasting for a flavorful and slightly spicy main.
- In a dipping sauce: Combine harissa with yogurt, mayonnaise, or butter for a quick and creamy sauce to serve with meats and breads or swirled on top of a soup. The dairy base will mellow out the spiciness of the harissa.
- In a stew: Harissa is a classic ingredient in Tunisian meat or vegetable stews served with couscous.
- With vegetables: Toss potatoes, carrots, parsnips, or Brussels sprouts in harissa and olive oil before roasting.
- In salad dressing: Add harissa to a vinaigrette or tahini dressing to spice up raw vegetable salads.
- With meatballs: Add a harissa to your meatball mix for a little Middle Eastern flavor and heat.
- With lentils: Stir a little harissa into lentils as they cook for a bolder flavor.
- In a cocktail: Make harissa micheladas by mixing beer with a spoonful of harissa and a squeeze of lemon juice.
Homemade Harissa Paste Recipe
Prep Time10 min
Total Time30 min
Cook Time20 min
The spice level of harissa depends on the type of chile peppers you make it with. Always taste your harissa to make sure the spice level is to your liking. You can start out with less of the hot peppers and add more, one at a time, until the harissa is as spicy as you want it to be.
- 3 red bell peppers, stemmed, seeded, and quartered
- 5 garlic cloves, unpeeled
- 6 dried guajillo chiles
- ½ teaspoon cumin seeds
- ½ teaspoon coriander seeds
- 1 teaspoon caraway seeds
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, plus more to taste
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more to taste
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more if needed
- Preheat the oven to 400°F. Place bell peppers and garlic cloves on a rimmed baking sheet and roast until peppers are slightly charred and garlic cloves have softened in their skins.
- Meanwhile, rehydrate dried guajillo peppers in boiling water. Use kitchen scissors to snip the stem ends off the chiles and shake out the seeds. Place trimmed chiles in a heat-safe bowl and pour boiling-hot water over the chiles. Let sit until softened, then drain.
- Toast cumin seeds, coriander seeds, and caraway seeds in a dry skillet over medium heat until fragrant. Grind in a spice grinder or use a mortar and pestle.
- In a food processor, combine charred bell peppers, garlic cloves (squeeze them out of their skins), rehydrated peppers, ground spices, lemon juice, paprika, salt, and olive oil. Blend until a smooth paste forms, adding more olive oil if needed. Taste, and adjust seasoning.
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