Harissa is a Tunisian hot red chile sauce that evolved after the Spanish introduced chillies from the new world into North Africa and the Mediterranean in the mid 1500’s. Harissa’s popularity spread across North Africa, including Libya, Algeria, and Morocco and eventually across the Middle East with adaptations for regional tastes.
The basic ingredients for harissa are, first and foremost, chilies, both fresh and dried, as well as garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, cumin and coriander seeds, and salt. Variations may also include caraway seeds, mint, tomatoes, and even cinnamon. This is hot stuff and meant to be, so don’t be timid! Used with grilled meats and fish, stirred into soups and tagines, and especially favored as a condiment with couscous.
Hariisa is produced commercially, but I have yet to taste one that even approaches a freshly made harissa. There is, to be honest, some preparation involved, but the rewards are well worth the effort. You may want to make larger batches and freeze for later use.
Harissa makes 1 ¼ cups
- 3 long fresh hot red chilies
- 1 small red sweet pepper (optional)
- 1 vine ripe tomato
- 4-6 long dried hot red chilies
- 6 small hot red dried chilies
- 4 plump garlic cloves, skin on
- ½ teaspoon cumin seeds, toasted
- ½ teaspoon coriander seeds, toasted
- ¼ teaspoon caraway seeds, toasted (optional)
- 3 tablespoons lemon juice
- 3/4 teaspoon sea salt + more as needed
- 3 to 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil + more for preserving.
Before you begin, you will want to flame roast the fresh chilies, bell pepper, (if using) and tomato, as well as dry toast the dried chilies, garlic, and seeds.
Flame roast the fresh hot red chilies, sweet bell pepper (if using), and vine ripe tomato before you proceed with the recipe. (see here). Once they are roasted and sweated, peel off the skins of the chilies and bell pepper, remove the seeds, and chop. Peel the tomato and remove the seeds, pith and juice, and mince.
Prepare the dried chilies. Place them in a dry hot skillet over medium heat, pressing them against the bottom of the skillet with a spatula for about 30 seconds. Flip them over and again press them against the bottom of the skillet for another 30 seconds. Promptly remove them and set aside to cool. Once they are cool, slit them open, remove stems and most of the seeds and place them in a bowl. Pour boiled water over them and set aside for 20 minutes to soften. Drain off the water and finely chop.
And finally, lightly toast the garlic cloves, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, and caraway seeds (if using) in a dry heated skillet until they are aromatic and lightly toasted. Peel the skin off the garlic and set aside. Finely grind the toasted seeds in a mortar and set aside.
You are now ready to proceed with preparing the harissa.
Place the chopped flame roasted fresh chilies, chopped flame roasted sweet pepper (if using), chopped tomato, chopped toasted dry red chilies, and the roasted garlic in a food processor. Pulse until the ingredients resemble a course puree.
Add the toasted ground cumin, coriander, and caraway (if using), lemon juice, and salt and pulse until well combined. Then, with the machine running, begin adding the olive oil in a slow steady stream until the harissa is thick and relatively smooth. Taste, adding more salt as needed and pulse until combined.
Transfer the harissa to a sterilized jar and jiggle the jar to even out the surface. Pour a little olive oil over the surface which seals in the flavor. Seal the jar tightly and refrigerate for up to 6 weeks or more.