How to Make Tunisian Harissa - and How to Use It

Should harissa be spicy or not? This traditional ingredient comes in many versions, but one thing is certain: its central role in Tunisian cuisine. Four recipes.

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Fish in red pepper sauce, spicy antipasti with honey and labneh, Tunisian ‘kimchi’ and avocado and hard-boiled egg salad.
Fish in red pepper sauce, spicy antipasti with honey and labneh, Tunisian ‘kimchi’ and avocado and hard-boiled egg salad.Credit: Matan Choufan
Matan Choufan
Matan Choufan
Matan Choufan
Matan Choufan

Internet readers have been responding emotionally to traditional recipes, convinced that he or she is the only one who really knows what is authentic. Taken together, they reveal a simple truth: Every dish has dozens of methods of preparation.

This is true of harissa, of course. Harissa simply means a spread, and there is even an almond harissa, for example. In this column, I’m referring to the pepper spread used in Tunisian cuisine as a basis for many dishes, from salads and sandwiches to cooked specialties. It’s hard to exaggerate the importance of this ingredient.

I became familiar with Tunisian cuisine mainly through my mother, who learned about it from my grandmother. My grandmother’s attitude in the kitchen was similar to her quiet-but-present personality. She used few spices and glorified raw ingredients. If you ask her what her favorite salad is, she’ll reply immediately: coarsely cut tomatoes, olive oil, hot green pepper and salt. And the same is true of her harissa, which is free of spices.

That’s why I was surprised to discover, somewhat belatedly, from my father’s family, that the more common harissa is actually rich in spices. Then I realized that the pursuit of the authentic is doomed to failure, due to the difficulty of defining what is authentic. Does it mean preferable to others? Is it more genuine? After all, every family has its own version.

Online conversations with Rafram Chaddad, a foodie who lives in Tunisia and is now working on a Tunisian cookbook, enabled me to get a broader view of Tunisian cuisine in general, and harissa in particular. It originated, says Chaddad, in the city of Nabuel. Once a year there’s an harissa festival there, and in the region, “they also raise the three most perfect types of peppers.”

Harissa can be found in Sicily and Morocco as well. “Only in Israel is there a concept of ‘Moroccan harissa,’” says Chaddad. “But the truth is that in Morocco the spicy taste isn’t common.”

In my kitchen there’s always a jar of the highly spiced red spread. I use it to prepare many dishes, not necessarily traditional ones; just imagine spaghetti in a sauce of harissa butter or roast chicken spread with a stinging harissa.

The most common version of harissa includes caraway, cumin and ground coriander seeds. I prefer my family’s version. To my grandmother’s recipe I add spices suitable for the dish I’m preparing. You can change the ratio between the sweet and hot (shata) peppers, based on the spiciness of the latter and the tolerance of the diners for spicy food. You can prepare harissa based on olive oil, or one based on lemon.

Harissa

Ingredients (for 1 liter):

250 gr sweet dried red peppers

100 gr spicy dried red

peppers (shata)

For olive oil-based harissa:

2-5 peeled garlic cloves

3/4 cup olive oil

1 1/2 tsp salt

For lemon-based harissa:

2-5 garlic cloves

juice of 3 lemons

1 1/2 tsp salt

It’s very important to work with gloves at this stage: Prepare a very large bowl of water. Remove the stems from the peppers and shake out the seeds (it’s important to get rid of as many seeds as possible). Transfer the peppers to the bowl with the water. Soak in water for several hours, preferably overnight. Strain all liquid from the peppers by leaving them in the strainer for about half an hour.

Olive oil-based harissa: Place garlic cloves and peppers in a food processor and grind them. When they start to form a paste, gradually add olive oil and salt, while continuing to process the mixture. If the harissa is too thick, add some more olive oil. Transfer to a jar and store in the refrigerator.

Lemon-based harissa: The process is identical, but instead of olive oil, add lemon while processing. (Chaddad recommends, in the best Tunisian tradition, processing the peppers by putting them through a meat grinder twice. After grinding, mix with spices and olive oil or lemon.)

Fish in red pepper sauce.
Fish in red pepper sauce.Credit: Matan Choufan

Fish in red pepper sauce

Just don’t call this dish chreime. I call it Tunisian fish, although in Tunisian cuisine there are many other fish dishes. I recommend asking the fishmonger to cut the fish into thick slices, and cooking it with the bone, because this keeps the flesh juicier. (The disadvantage is that diners will have to deal with the bones.) Adding the fish head to the dish will add a lot of flavor.

Ingredients (serves 4):

About 1.3 kg. of musar (drumfish), sliced with the bone or cut into filets

2 sweet red peppers (gamba)

4 peeled garlic cloves

5-6 tbsp canola oil

1 tbsp ground caraway seeds

1 tbsp harissa (olive oil-based)

1 tsp sweet paprika

juice from 1/2 squeezed lemon

Chop the red peppers and garlic very fine (it’s easier to grind them together in the food processor). Heat oil in a broad, shallow skillet and add the caraway. When the aroma becomes evident, add chopped peppers and garlic. Stir. Add harissa, paprika and lemon juice. Stir, cover and lower heat. Continue to cook for about half an hour. Add fish slices and cover. Continue to cook for 25 minutes, or until the fish is done. Serve with a good bread.

Spicy antipasti with honey, labneh and harissa.
Spicy antipasti with honey, labneh and harissa.Credit: Matan Choufan

Spicy antipasti with honey and labneh

We recommend preparing the pumpkin and eggplant in two separate baking pans, since they have different grilling times.

Ingredients (serves 4):

1 eggplant

500-600 gr pumpkin

2 tbsp harissa (olive oil-based)

1 tsp cumin (optional)

4 tbsp olive oil

For serving:

3 tbsp labneh, 1 tbsp honey, a pinch of Atlantic Sea salt, fresh and rinsed oregano and spearmint leaves

Heat oven to 220-degrees Celsius, on grill setting.

Halve eggplant lengthwise and cut into 1.5 cm slices. Place the slices on baking paper and scatter coarse salt over them to draw out the liquid. After about 45 minutes rinse them and transfer to a large baking pan. Arrange the eggplant slices in one layer, so grilling will be uniform. Mix 1 tbsp harissa, 1/2 tsp cumin and 2 tbsp olive oil. Mix and spread over the eggplant. Place in oven for about 15 minutes, or until it is browned.

Peel pumpkin and cut into slices about 1 cm thick and then into 4 cm squares. Transfer to a wide baking pan. Mix 1 tbsp of harissa, 1/2 tsp cumin and 2 tbsp olive oil and spread on the pumpkin. Place in the oven for 25 minutes, or until the pumpkin is soft and lightly browned.

To serve: Generously spread labneh on a plate and place the vegetables on it. Pour the honey over it and sprinkle on the salt and herbs.

Tunisian ‘kimchi’.
Tunisian ‘kimchi’.Credit: Matan Choufan

Tunisian ‘kimchi’

Kimchi is a basic dish in Korean cuisine. It is actually pickled and fermented vegetables, usually Chinese (napa) cabbage, daikon (a kind of large radish), carrots and scallions. Recently I went on a trip to the northwestern United States, a region with dominant Asian influences, and from eating one kimchi after another I thought it would be interesting to prepare this dish with Tunisian harissa, with more accessible vegetables and in an accelerated process.

Ingredients:

1/2 head of white cabbage

5 tbsp coarse salt

1 peeled carrot

1 peeled kohlrabi

2 tbsp lemon-based harissa

2 tbsp fish sauce (can be replaced with mushroom sauce)

3 green onions (not the white part)

1 tsp coriander seeds, coarsely ground

1 tbsp sugar

Cut the half head of cabbage in two. Remove the hard stem from each quarter and rinse well under running water. Cut the two parts lengthwise, and then slice them into 4 cm strips. Transfer to a bowl and add the coarse salt. Rub well and put aside for about 15 minutes, to soften the cabbage and allow it to better absorb the marinade.

Cut the remaining vegetables. Slice the carrot into thin, 5 cm long sticks; cut kohlrabi into 2 cm cubes and green onions into 4 cm strips. Combine all ingredients. Mix well. Transfer to a 1-liter jar and press the vegetables down. Fill the jar with water to cover vegetables, put on the lid firmly and set on kitchen counter. The kimchi can be eaten the next day, but fermentation begins only after about three days. In any case, after five days, place in refrigerator for storage.

Avocado and hard-boiled egg salad with harissa.
Avocado and hard-boiled egg salad with harissa.Credit: Matan Choufan

Avocado and hard-boiled egg salad

Ingredients (serves 2-4):

1 avocado, cubed

1 hard-boiled egg, cubed

1 celery stalk sliced into very thin rings

1 tbsp lemon-based harissa

Mix all ingredients together. Taste and add salt if necessary.

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