Learn what goes into this fiery paste and how to wield it in your own cooking.
Whether dolloped atop a pita sandwich, rubbed into a piece of flame-grilled meat, or mixed into a fiery stew, chances are you’ve tried harissa, the chili-laden spice blend that has experienced a boom in popularity in recent years.
Like Zaatar and Tahini, harissa has recently gotten a boost in its international profile thanks to an increased interest in and craving for Middle Eastern cuisine around the globe. Not to be confused with the dish called harisa, a thick Armenian porridge made with chicken or lamb, harissa seasoning is a versatile spice mix that typically takes the form of a paste and can be used to flavor a multitude of heat-friendly dishes.
Though the specific recipe varies from region to region and maker to maker, the essential ingredients include variety of hot peppers—typically including red peppers, serrano peppers, and Baklouti pepper—garlic, coriander, caraway, saffron, mint, and occasionally rose. The blended spices are then often mixed with olive or vegetable oil and served in paste form to maintain the freshness and flavors longer.
While the addition of rose isn’t a given in every blend of harissa, many spice mongers and cooks incorporate the flower into their mixes, as the floral sweetness tends to balance out the intense spice of the chilies well.
With roots in Northern Africa, in the Mahgreb region now occupied by Morocco, Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia, harissa’s exact place of origin is uncertain. However, many believe the blend was first created in the spice markets of Tunisia, the first African nation to incorporate chili peppers into their cuisine during a 16th century Spanish occupation. Today, Tunisia remains the world’s top exporter of harissa, though many other countries and spice distributors also produce the fiery mixture.
The spice blend’s unique name is taken from the Arabic word “harasa,” meaning, “to pound.” Though it is often compared to Sriracha and other chili-based pastes and sauces, harissa is used not only as a condiment—to be slathered on bread and sprinkled over dishes for an added kick—but is also an integral part of a countless variety of recipes. In Tunisian cooking, harissa is typically used as a meat rub or to flavor stews, whereas in Israel you’re likely to find it on top of Sabich, a popular Middle Eastern sandwich made with fried eggplant and hard boiled eggs.
While harissa can now be bought in most grocery stores—and online—the best way to experience this rich spice mixture is to make your own, using these recipes for Homemade Harissa Paste or Mad Spicy Harissa.
Once you’ve played around with your chilies and perfected your personalized mixture, the dish options are endless. Go the vegetarian route with Spice Roasted Eggplant with Garlic Yogurt and Harissa or Couscous with Spring Vegetables and Harissa Sauce. Or, try your hand at a spicy meat dish like Leg of Lamb with Spicy Harissa, Tunisian-Spiced Turkey with Garlic Couscous and Gravy, Chicken Thighs with Harissa Vegetables, or Lamb Burgers with Green Harissa. Just don’t blame us if your tongue is a little numb in the aftermath.
To learn more about some of your other favorite spice blends, check out Everything You Need to Know About Dukkah, and Everything You Need to Know About Herbes de Provence.