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.
Ingredients (for 1 liter):
250 gr sweet dried red peppers
100 gr spicy dried red
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
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)