Harissa is a bright paste of red chilies, garlic, coriander, salt, and caraway. You can make it yourself or find it in supermarkets packaged in toothpaste-like tubes, cans, or pre-made at the deli counter. Appropriately, its name is based on the Arabic word for “to pound” or “to break into pieces” – now much more easily done to the chilies by food processor than the traditional mortar and pestle method.
Known mainly as Tunisian, it’s popularly used throughout North African cuisine, especially in Libya, Algeria, and Morocco. When peppers found their way to North Africa, probably via Spanish traders, the Tunisians made peppers an integral ingredient in their dishes. While the taste for harissa has spread to other parts of North Africa, it’s still Tunisian harissa that’s most widely known and considered the most traditional.
Harissa can be used as a marinade for meat and fish, eaten as a dipping sauce or condiment for breads and vegetables, or mixed into stews, eggs, couscous, or hummus. It’s also particularly good for lending a swift kick to any kind of tomato-based sauce. While spice lovers may use harissa at its full strength, the red paste can also be diluted with oil or vinegar. There are other variations to taste – the red chili peppers whose puree is the base of harissa can be used fresh, or first dried or roasted. A variety called harous also adds onions to the standard recipe.
In Abu Dhabi, a favorite traditional brand of harissa is “Le Phare du Cap Bon”, which can be found in yellow tubes or cans in a number of supermarkets. Its name translates to “The Lighthouse of Good Cape” – both the lighthouse and the Cape are located in Northwest Tunisia. On the southern coast of the “Cap Bon” peninsula is the town of Nabeul, where the first box of this brand’s harissa was made in 1946. According to the company’s website, the family business has been passed from father to son since then, and legend has it that all Le Phare’s harissa still uses the original recipe of grandmother and matriarch Oum Elkhir.
Harissa has gained in popularity worldwide, even enjoying status as a trendy addition to celebrity chef repertoires. It’s easy to see why – it’s spicy, delicious, and versatile as an addition to your favorite savory recipes.